Here's a first. Fox wants to sell fewer ads. Yes, fewer.
The first-place broadcast network, in a move aimed at quelling viewer backlash against the rising number of ads shoehorned into TV shows, told advertisers Thursday that it would slash by half the number of commercials next season for two of its most promising new dramas: "Fringe" produced by J.J. Abrams, and "Dollhouse," created by Joss Whedon.
The gambit, which Fox dubbed "Remote Free TV," means that the actual entertainment portion of an hourlong program will increase to nearly 50 minutes. Commercial and promotion time will shrink to about 10 minutes from 18 minutes an hour.
Fox executives said the shift came in response to annoyance among viewers at the heavy commercial load in popular prime-time shows. The network believes that if there are only a few 30-second spots per commercial break, viewers might be less tempted to flip to another channel or fast forward through the ads while watching episodes on digital video recorders.
"This is a huge risk, but we have to do a better job for our viewers," said Jon Nesvig, Fox's advertising sales president, who came up with the idea while jogging on a treadmill at a Los Angeles hotel. The workout-room TV was set to a cable channel that ran so many commercials that even Fox's top ad man thought it was too much.
Fox's hope is that advertisers will be willing to pay more to have their commercials in a less cluttered environment if it also means their ads will be seen.
Advertisers applauded Fox, calling it a shrewd move to retain the audience, even if it means advertisers will pay more. With less commercial time available, "that will tighten up the inventory and drive up the price for ads," said Brad Adgate, research director for Horizon Media, which buys television time.
Fox's decision comes at a time when the television advertising system is under new scrutiny. Since September the networks have sold commercial time using a different metric. Instead of basing the ad rate on the size of the audience for the entire program, the networks now base the ad rate on the number of viewers who watch the commercial.
"Now the networks are held responsible for the ratings for the commercials," said Andy Donchin, a senior executive with ad-buying firm Carat.
Fox Entertainment Chairman Peter Liguori said movie marketers and other advertisers looking to make a big splash with their ads might be more inclined to pay a premium to appear in an environment with fewer commercials.
Irwin Gotlieb, chief executive of GroupM, a company of ad-buying agencies, said he was glad that Fox was scaling back. "In the past, no one ever stopped to say, 'What is the right amount of commercials?' It was always just how much could they sell."