On Monday, NBC Nightly News had only one advertiser, Philips, running only a little over a minute of ads. Viewership jumped by almost a million people, and thousands of positive emails and comments poured in. Sure, it’s a novelty, but if people get so excited about a lack of ads, let’s hope networks and advertisers give this experiment another whirl.
It’s not a new concept. As the Baltimore Sun puts it, “Television viewers old enough to remember Texaco Star Theater or the Schlitz Playhouse of Stars from a few decades ago may feel a sense of deja vu.” Other shows, such as 60 Minutes and 24, have also recently experimented with single sponsors.
Nightly News gained six minutes of news time by granting Philips the exclusive sponsorship, in part of a weeklong deal worth $2 million. Rather than adding new stories, the program added time and depth to existing ones. “We literally stopped counting the positive emails at 4,000,” writes Nightly News anchor Brian Williams on his blog. “How nice. We’re thrilled.” He promises the experiment will be repeated.
Mainstream media and new TV have a lot in common. Podcasts are rooted in the TiVo world. With underdeveloped advertising options, many regular online video shows choose sponsors to bring in income, audio shows too. GoDaddy is a familiar facet of shows like Diggnation. But most such cases are different from Nightly News, because the line between advertisement and content is a lot less strict.
Robert Scoble’s ScobleShow at PodTech is explicit about its sponsorship by Seagate. Scoble, who famously brought a candid public voice to his previous employer, Microsoft, is fastidious about disclosure. However, he often aims his spotlight on Seagate, a company not often found in the public eye. “Is this an advertisement? Yes. But it’s not like any advertisement I’ve seen on the Internet or on main stream TV,” he writes of an episode devoted to Seagate CEO Bill Watkins.
Of course, it’s not just moving pictures facing the problem of surviving advertising overload. Even the venerable New Yorker sold a full issue of ads to the decidedly low-brow Target last year. Out in the real live physical world, some San Francisco MUNI stations feature a single advertiser across panels and panels of space. (We think it originated with Apple ads at the Powell station right below the Apple Store, though we could be wrong.) In contrast to the mishmash of ads everywhere else in the city, the campaigns are eye-catching and memorable.
It’s not just the novelty; slimming down advertising is effective on its own. We’ve all seen enough ads in our lives — the contrast isn’t going to wear off right away. It’s essential that sponsorship stays out of content as much as possible — but this slope doesn’t have to be so slippery we swear it off.