Line between TV programs and ads continues to blur

For several years, it has been hard to tell where a program ends and the commercial begins. First, there was product placement and then advertising integrated into scripts. Now, the TBS and TNT cable networks will try “TV in Context”— a technique borrowed from the Internet that connects certain scenes in programs with commercials.

Turner Entertainment Networks — part of the Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting System — announced after a test last season that TV in Context will be used in 100 movies and scripted series during the 2009-2010 seasons on its TBS and TNT networks. Among the scripted series in which Turner plans to offer the service are reruns of “My Name Is Earl” on TBS and the original series, “Leverage,” on TNT.

As part of the television industry’s “upfront week” — the annual effort to sell commercial time before the start of the autumn/winter television season — TBS and TNT stole the spotlight from the traditional networks with a plan that seeks to offer advertisers something like the contextual targeting they can achieve online by serving ads to computer users whose behavior is tracked from Web site to Web site.

That service is popular on the Internet because it can track online behavior and serve computer users with advertising that they find relevant. The TV equivalent is designed to match the commercial with relevant scenes from the programming.

TV in Context involves searching through thousands of programs in the Turner Entertainment library and cataloging the scenes by subject matter. Then similar content is found from commercials scheduled to run on the network.

In Turner’s presentation, Linda Yaccarino, executive vice president and general manager for advertising sales and marketing, showed a scene from the feature film” Anchorman” in which the actors discuss the subject of love. The first spot in the next commercial break was for the online dating service.

In another scene from the movie “Hitch,” star Will Smith has an allergic reaction to his food. The Walgreens drug store commercial that followed was for Zyrtec, an allergy medicine.

TV in Context was tested for over a year. Last season, it was available in 50 movies on TBS and TNT. The effort got off to a major start when General Motors’ OnStar service bought a commercial on TNT during a break in the film “The Bourne Supremacy.” The TV spot was tied to the scene of Jason Bourne in a crash-filled car chase. After the chase, the OnStar spot asked, “Are you counting on your cell phone to be your lifeline in a crash?”

Research from last season showed improved scores on attributes like engagement, recall and purchase intent among viewers for the brands that used TV in Context. In addition to General Motors, those early advertisers included Applebee’s, Best Buy, Chili’s, DIRECTV, Hallmark and Kellogg.

Magna, a division of the Mediabrands unit of the Interpublic Group, said TV in Context was a simple idea with initial results that were “very compelling.” The results have caused several other networks to investigate their own versions of the idea.

AMC, the cable network, is teaming with Nielsen Media Research, to offer what it calls AIM, which stands for Audience Identity Metric. AMC will choose movies from its library that are tailored for the behavior of the viewers who watch those movies.