Executives seek to hold viewers with quick-hit TV

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LOS ANGELES - Jerry Seinfeld announced several months ago that he would be returning to prime time on NBC in a series of one-minute episodes to promote his Bee Movie. He didn't know what to call them.

Battlestar Galactica: Razor, is a "minisode" from Sci Fi Channel. Programmers hope short-form formats help them stand out.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Battlestar Galactica: Razor, is a "minisode" from Sci Fi Channel. Programmers hope short-form formats help them stand out.

"Minisodes? TV juniors? Tiny-tainment?" the comedian quipped with his usual deadpan.

What about featurettes? Microseries? Pods?

These are all terms that have been bandied about by broadcast and cable executives to describe their brand of bite-sized shows - story-driven shorts usually no more than a minute long.

With shorter attention spans and the rise of digital video recorders making viewers more adept at commercial avoidance, "breaking up commercial pods with compelling content is a way to make programs and networks more sticky and to keep viewers from drifting, which has an effect not just on the programs' ratings but on the network's bottom line," says John Rash, of the Minneapolis-based advertising agency Campbell Mithun.

When SoapNet began its one-minute soaps in 2003, "We really were just thinking about building our brand," SoapNet executive Deborah Blackwell says.

By the third season of its microseries rollout, SoapNet was promoting sponsors' products with compatible themes. Its short-series Office Romance with job site Monster.com focused on the downfalls of love in the workplace. Another, titled Too Late, with dating service Match.com, explored a romantic triangle.

"It wasn't like we had to integrate a jar of mayonnaise into the middle of it," says Ms. Blackwell, who wanted the spots to be entertaining and not just blatant plugs for advertisers. "And it worked for us on so many levels.

"It was a fun way to give a little video snack ... and it's a really great way to partner with advertisers."

Fledgling CW network, for instance, started last fall by moving from 30-second to 10-second spots, dubbed "cwickies," and "content wraps," the network's ad-driven minishows.

"The content wrap was basically an attempt to marry entertainment with messaging in the right environment - sort of more storytelling in maybe two or three minutes in length," says Bill Morningstar, the CW's executive vice president of national sales.

The content wraps went over well with marketers, so the network moved forward this fall with its half-hour program CW Now, with advertiser brands integrated into the show.

Wal-Mart sponsored the first episode featuring three segments on the release of Halo 3, the hot video game available at its stores.

"What we are trying to do with a lot of this different messaging, whether it's long form or short form, is find new ways to break through and engage the consumer," Mr. Morningstar says. "Execution, obviously, is key."

The Seinfeld minisodes airing on NBC this month to promote his upcoming animated Bee Movie are sponsored by Ford Motor Co. The 20 self-contained spots, each about 90 seconds, promise a behind-the-scenes glimpse of production of the film in which Mr. Seinfeld voices an embittered bee.

"When you see them they're not just commercials for the Bee Movie (even though) he's talking about the making of the Bee Movie," Marc Graboff, a co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, says. "He's so Seinfeldian in it, you know, that it's just great."

With Nielsen Media Research, the television ratings service, now rating commercials, "we want to make sure there's something there now that the audience wants to see," Mr. Graboff says.

The Seinfeld snippets, which will also run on NBC.com, are part of NBC's plan to boost commercials as entertainment, what they're calling "pod innovation," says Barbara Blangiardi, an NBC executive whose job includes "content innovation."

"I've got to tell you, when I was asked to take on 'pod innovation,' I didn't know hardly anything about it," she says.

The fact is: The whole industry is winging it.

"And anybody who says anything different is basically lying to you," says Ben Grossman, the Los Angeles bureau chief of the trade magazine Broadcasting & Cable. "I mean, it's still not a lot of money in it yet. It's basically promotion. But that said, everybody feels, and probably rightfully so, that they've got to be in the game."


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