Golden Age of TV Advertising to End?


When Brett Morgen, who directed the Academy Award-nominated feature documentary On The Ropes while still a graduate student at NYU, dropped by the school on Tuesday to hold court at a lunch hosted by Mary Schmidt-Campbell, dean of the Tisch School for the Arts, his story of being signed to commercial production house Anonymous Content based on the strength of his film was all too familiar to anyone who’s been a production assistant in Manhattan.

Lots of independent feature and documentary directors do lucrative commercial work on the side, essentially funding their pet projects by mining the rich vein of Madison Avenue ad budgets. But as Morgen spoke, I began to wonder how much longer the gravy train of high-paying commercial work for maverick directors would last. The format hasn’t changed much since the Mad Men era, but viewing habits certainly have. And I can count on two hands the number of 30-second spots I’ve seen in the last month.

Network executives are tearing their hair out over DVR-enabled ad skipping, which not only eats into their revenue stream but makes it difficult to promote new shows. And anyone downloading episodes from iTunes (AAPL), renting TV series DVDs from Netflix (NFLX), watching YouTube (GOOG) or browsing file-sharing networks lives in a relatively advertising-free paradise — save for the increasingly heavy-handed product placements and occasional overlay graphic.

Other than paying a prop master to put a Sprint (S) phone in the hands of the latest villain in Heroes, what will replace the 30-second spot? Infomercials have become ubiquitous on cable, and advertising has crept into local news broadcasts in the form of sponsored travel segments. “Advertainment,” such as Amanda Congdon’s work for DuPont (DD), is another option — a format that exists somewhere between what used to be called industrials and traditional advertising, wholly sponsored by an agency client and intended to be entertaining enough to draw viewers without the need for a popular program wrapped around it.

In some cases, ads themselves are taking on lives of their own. Morgen’s Nimrod Nation is a new show based on a series of spots he did for ESPN, similar to Geico’s Caveman campaign, which is now a (widely panned) series. Along those lines, an actor friend of mine recently explained his idea for “commer-serials,” or spots that tell an episodic story from break to break during a program.

Then again, the 30-second spot could live on. But if the promises of super-refined targeting come true, how can one justify putting $1 million into a single commercial spot vs. a hundred spots at $10,000 each that reach a swath of niche audiences?

I do expect to see more blurring, blending and bending and of the lines between entertainment, documentary and commercials. I also expect to see budgets fall as increasingly refined psychographic metrics result in more tailored approaches. Perhaps the 30-second spot will never completely disappear, but the form will not be the coin of the realm that it is now.

Jackson West is currently attending film school at New York University.

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