When TV advertising changed

Back in 2016, after being on air for more than 30 years, the much-loved American late-night TV sketch comedy and variety show, Saturday Night Live, underwent a significant change. 

It wasn’t, however, the show’s time-honoured format that was tweaked. Rather it was in the commercial breaks that viewers noticed something different. Broadcaster NBC had earlier announced its plans to cut nearly 30% of ads in favour of replacing them with ‘Branded Content’. In real terms, this equated to two commercial breaks over the course of the one-and-a-half-hour show. That was quite the dramatic decrease, and no doubt one that the average viewer eagerly welcomed.

Why branded content replaced traditional TV advertising.

So why the change? At the time the Network said it hoped that it would result in more sustained viewership. Less ads. Yep. That’ll help. But what was the thinking behind the move to Branded Content? Enter stage left, the new kids on the block – Netflix, Stan, Putlocker and co. Thanks to this cohort, we were officially living in the beginnings of an era of ‘binge watching’. Netflix, Et al were providing us with a constant online stream of the TV shows and movies that we wanted to watch, when and where we wanted to see them, and here’s the newsworthy headline – all ad free! Not surprisingly, an increasing number of viewers were relishing the experience of watching shows with no ad interruptions at all.

TV advertising in disguise.

As we became the generation of ‘mini ego-Networks’ – where each individual was their own pint-sized NBC or ABC, in charge and in control of their own evening of ad-free programming, thank you very much – what leg did marketing departments within TV networks have left to stand on? The answer was in repackaging – and arguably disguising – ads as branded content segments. Branded Content done well holds currency all its own. In the case of Saturday Night Live, the segments were co-branded such that SNL and the brand  worked together to come up with a skit talking about a particular product. In this way, it anticipated that viewers would understand they were in on the joke and would enjoy playing along.

It was expected that SNL wouldn’t lose money with this change as that there would be just six branded segments so they would come at a premium. And NBC went on to say that if Branded Content segments worked, they would start using more of them in the network’s primetime shows. With people craving a TV experience free of interruptive advertising, the use of Content Marketing in commercial breaks was certainly a viable and attractive alternative to traditional TV selling. Further to this, it was another exciting example of how ‘people power’ can drive significant change.


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ARTIST: Ian Dooley

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