NBCU Looks to Pin Down Viewers During WWE ‘Smackdown’ Breaks

NBCUniversal doesn’t want to put viewers in a headlock to get them to watch commercials.

So at a time when commercial avoidance is a big issue for ad-supported TV, NBCU is going to use a picture-in-picture approach during its WWE SmackDown series on USA Network.

When the commercial break starts, the sound will go down on the action, but viewers will still be able to see the “Superstars” bash each other with steel chairs and jump from the turnbuckles. Meanwhile, the ad message plays with sound and motion.

NBCU tested the concept last year and expects to go forward with it later this month or in early June. The names of the participating advertisers was not disclosed. Picture-in-picture will be included as NBCU sells WWE programming on USA in the upfront.

The company is also planning to offer picture-in-picture ads during the 2018 Winter Olympics, allowing viewers to keep track of what’s happening on the ice and hills in Pyeongchang, South Korea.


The picture-in-picture gambit — previously employed by NBCU and Turner during auto racing — is part of NBCU’s pitch to advertisers that they should redefine the commercial experience on TV, NBCU executive vice president of network partnerships Josh Feldman said.

“We want to improve the viewing experience for fans with marketing and advertising, versus just having marketing advertising be part of the viewing experience,” Feldman said. “Picture-in-picture improves the viewing experience. That’s the mission of what we’re trying to do here.”

NBCU tested picture-in-picture ads during two episodes of SmackDown last year. Each episode had two commercial breaks using the picture-in-picture technique. During those breaks, ratings went up 13%, indicating that viewers stuck around instead of changing the channel, fast-forwarding or making a sandwich. The lift during those breaks raised the C3 ratings for the entire show by close to 2%. That’s good for NBCU.

The test had good results for advertisers as well. The spots in the picture-in-picture breaks scored 42% higher ad memorability than the cable norm, with brand memorability was up 100%. That means that rather than being distracted by the wresting activity, viewers were engaged with the commercial message, Feldman said.

Higher ratings means more money for NBCU, even if it doesn’t charge a premium to be in the picture-in picture spots.

The WWE has “a huge fan base that not only watches it live, but also watches the commercials and pays attention to the commercials. That’s part of what we’re trying to build and part of the reason why we’re doing picture in picture,” NBCU executive vice president of ad sales Mark Marshall said. “With SmackDown, this provides us the chance to have an advertiser be the hero and provide that live action.”

WWE provides brand-safe programming and good ratings, Marshall noted. NBCU has already worked to make wrestling entertainment more advertiser-friendly by creating branded content that links sponsors to the action. “The intention is to blend that branded content, plus picture-in-picture, with this audience that’s already paying attention,” he said. “We feel like that’s the home run.”


NBCU also used the picture-in-picture technique to give viewers a behind-the-scenes look on last year’s NBC airing of Hairspray Live! Marshall and Feldman also see picture-in-picture opportunities for NBC on Today and during late night.

Feldman said NBCU is doing a number of other things with advertisers to help improve the consumer experience.

On Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live, host Andy Cohen plays a “word of the night” game with views that can run partly during commercial breaks and feature an advertiser’s keywords.

“We’re telling people to stay through the commercial breaks tonight,” Feldman sais.

During NBC’s Blindspot, the producers have created additional puzzles for viewers to solve that appear during the commercial breaks in the show. Those puzzles could also be tailored for a specific advertiser, Feldman said.

Heavyweight Sponsors

Top 10 spenders on USA’s WWE SmackDown, year to date:

BRAND                                                     SPENDING

WWE Network                                           $742,418

Taco Bell                                                    $618,033

Verizon                                                       $583,050

The Real Cost                                            $559,728

NutriSystem                                                $559,728

Universal Pictures                                      $536,406

Domino’s                                                    $513,084

GEICO                                                       $443,118

Burger King                                               $396,474

Subway                                                     $396, 474


This article appeared in the May 15 print edition of Multichannel News.

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.