Why Comedy Central Is Replacing Commercials With Branded Content

Your eyes are glued to the screen as you watch your favorite TV show. The writers are about to reveal a huge secret about your favorite character. Then, just as you’re about to find out the details, commercials come on. You immediately mute the screen and start scrolling through Instagram. Even photos of your friend’s latte are more interesting than a 30-second spot for wrinkle cream.

Anyone who watches television knows how frustrating that process can be. For networks and advertisers, the frustration is starting to impact them as well. That’s why Comedy Central has decided enough is enough—it wants to keep viewers hooked, even during its commercial breaks. Now, instead of a series of short spots, the network has started airing a custom two-and-half minute “linear commercial pod” once per month.

In other words, Comedy Central is experimenting with the televised version of branded content.

While these spots still interrupt the flow of a program, Comedy Central is hoping they’re more entertaining to watch than an ad for eczema cream. According to a 2014 study by the Harvard Business Review, “the percentage of ads considered fully viewed and getting high attention has decreased dramatically, from 97 percent in the early 1990s to less than 20 percent today.” These longform ads, which conform to Comedy Central’s idiosyncratic style and tell a contained story, are an attempt to turn those numbers around.

If viewers respond to the new approach, the change could be beneficial for Comedy Central’s business. Since brands go directly through the network instead of an agency, Comedy Central cuts out the middleman, which gives the network more control over its advertising, as well as a new revenue stream.

“If Comedy Central can produce ads that are genuinely funny and shareable, they’ll be able to get reach and engagement—the two primary KPIs of any ad campaign,” said Kevin Delie, the director of publisher development at TripleLift, a software platform for native programmatic ads. “For brands, this means the campaign gets attention, which is everything. For the network, they may be able to save TV revenue that is at risk.”

Getting handy

For the first few months of this experiment, Comedy Central is running a short branded series called Handy. No, this isn’t branded content for a new brand of lube (unfortunately). The series is actually about the trials and tribulations of a hand model, sponsored by a different company each episode. As you can imagine, this setup provides the perfect opportunity for humor.

For example, the first brand involved in Handy is Joe’s Crab Shack. Being Comedy Central, the network naturally makes fun of the company’s name. That’s why the spot is called… drum roll, please: “Erik Gets Crabs.”

Not every company that sponsors Handy creates products that lend themselves to sex jokes. Zales powers an episode about the difficulty of getting a closeup of the hands during a wedding proposal. The hope is that the series format will keep viewers wanting more, rather than overwhelmed by the flood of advertisers you normally see in a commercial break.

“Just a few short years ago, TV viewers didn’t have the option of pulling out their mobile device and engaging on social media and email,” Blake Davis, the founder and CEO of Long Drive Agency, said. “Commercials need to be more engaging, whether that means the network is producing their own commercials with the familiar faces of network stars, or creating more personalized content. Either way, if the content is quality, viewers will watch.”

Comedy Central is also teaming up with Viacom Velocity—the full-service integrated marketing and creative content team within Viacom, which owns the network—to develop more longform material. Like many media publishers, Comedy Central is using its full vertical creative stack to get the most bang for its buck.

“The fact that Viacom owns Comedy Central is significant because this would give credit to Viacom’s content studio,” Delie said, “which could enable them to get more deals across their portfolio.”

A new way to advertise?

Comedy Central isn’t the only player changing TV advertising. Many other programs, like Saturday Night Live, are innovating new forms as well.

Rather than using longform ads during the break like Comedy Central, SNL now inserts sponsored content directly into the show, which means NBC can afford to cut down the overall advertising load by 30 percent. The results, however, have looked more like traditional product placement than the more obviously sponsored skits of Comedy Central.

SNL partners with brands six times per year to create these sponsored skits. It’s mostly a win-win situation: Viewers get funny content and fewer ads while brands get an audience focused on the program rather than people scrolling through Instagram.

Comedy Central hasn’t committed to sponsored skits yet, but it still hopes that sponsored content takeovers will give viewers a more entertaining and relevant ad experience.

“I’d love to see a day—whether it be show premieres or tentpoles—where we’re creating content that’s really seamless and organic to the show and can take fans from break to break,” Chris Ficarra, the EVP of integrated marketing at Viacom Velocity, said in an interview with Adweek.

It remains to be seen if viewers will enjoy this form of advertising enough to stick around for the entire commercial. After all, consumers don’t need advertisers to provide entertainment for them—they can easily fast-forward through commercials on DVR or mute the sound until the show returns. Will entertaining content manage to finally grab consumer attention during the commercial break?

Only time will tell. For now, though, we’ll have to be satisfied making Handy jokes.

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