April 13, 2010

Good Show, Bad Ad... But All in All a Nice Afternoon


I'm smiling as I write this.

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On Monday I missed the season premiere of NBC's new comedy, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I'd been looking forward to it, because I enjoy the comic chemistry between Matthew Perry and Amanda Peet, two of the stars. I also looked forward to it because I adored Bradley Whitford on West Wing (who didn't?), particularly during the early years when the dialogue between him, Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe and other cast members was so quick and witty that I longed to be a television star just so I could have a script that would allow me to talk that way.

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And, of course, the fact that the show comes from executive producer-writer Aaron Sorkin, of West Wing fame and executive producer-director Thomas Schlamme (ditto), made the show a slam dunk for me to watch it.

But I missed the show.

So why am I smiling? You guessed it: because I've been viewing the premiere on NBC.com. As I'd hoped and expected, the writing and acting are smart, funny and provocative. The witty dialogue, particularly when Perry and Whitford make their appearance, would have kept me laughing wildly, except that I was afraid of missing the next lightning-quick utterance.

I'm smiling, too, however, because of what online video has made possible. NBC, struggling to rise from the relative hell of being the fourth-place network, and to recapture some of its glory from the days of Seinfeld and Friends, can boost buzz about a new show by airing it online, in its entirety or in a two-minute preview.


I get to watch a show I missed (no, I don't yet have TiVo). And advertisers like AT&T get an opportunity to reach a different set of eyeballs in a new way.

From an advertising standpoint, it was interesting to see how NBC set up the preview. I had wondered if NBC would include commercial breaks in the online version. Instead, it looks as though a single company, AT&T, is sponsoring the streaming version. When I clicked "Watch the full premiere episode online," a new screen opened and a short, pre-roll video played for AT&T before the episode began. That's relatively standard for online video.

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What I found was unusual is that the episode is broken up into five parts, each of about nine minutes (except for the last, which is just credits). Each of those five parts began with another pre-roll video for AT&T.

Placement like this, by the way, is a wonderful opportunity for an advertiser to do something unusual. Each pre-roll video, for example, could have taken me to the next level of understanding about the services AT&T is offering. Instead, the same ad is shown before each part of the show. Over. And over.

The ad shows a roomful of people watching a football game. Some watch via television, some via laptop and some via a cellphone. A voiceover says: "Three screens - wireless, broadband and TV - are coming together. Another innovation from AT&T. The new AT&T. Your world, delivered."

AT&T could be accused of dropping the ball. The voiceover doesn't tell me anything. How much more effective would the ad have been if each of the five ads offered the a new iteration of the message, in the same way that the five parts of the episode are each a mini-episode in themselves?

On the other hand, it's difficult for advertisers and their agencies to create relevant content each time a new online opportunity presents itself. So perhaps they can be forgiven for using a unique opportunity to run a boring ad.

But online video opportunities are expanding at the speed of light. Yahoo and Current TV, for example, have just announced a collaboration that will combine professional and user-created video clips for four different online channels. Most clips will be preceeded by pre-roll video of 15 to 30 seconds, and Current's editors plan to vet the videos to be sure they don't contain content that will be offensive to advertisers (one of the biggest obstacles currently keeping advertisers from jumping whole-heartedly into the user-generated content space).

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As these opportunities grow, smart advertisers will be those who grow with them. By that, I don't mean simply signing on to have their ads precede an online video. Rather, they will be the advertisers willing to spend the money to create new ads that are relevant not only to the people watching the video, but to the medium itself. AT&T could have made their ad better and far more effective by targeting it to the specific medium - that is, to the specific format NBC was using, breaking the episode into five parts. Had AT&T done that, they could have had an ad as riveting as the Studio 60 episode itself -- one that I would have enjoyed watching, rather than one I clicked away from to check my email.

Still, AT&T's sponsorship made it possible for me to view Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip in its entirety, for which I'm grateful. Lame advertising spot or not, the show itself was terrific. And so, I'm still smiling.

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