The Rise and Possible Fall of the Magazine Plan

Magazines alternate advertisements with editorial content. The “price” of reading the editorial content is turning pages past the advertising. Given that the reader controls the page and rate of page turning, it seems a small price to pay.

Traditional linear television, however, requires viewers to sit through minutes of advertising as the “price” for the program. While in both magazines and television the editorial/program content is the bait for the hook (the ads), magazines intersperse advertising spatially, television intersperses advertising temporally.

From the late 1920s onward, most broadcast time was sold in large chunks of 15, 30, or 60 minutes. The advertisers (known as sponsors) had to fill the time with programs, and in return, audiences were expected to feel gratitude toward sponsors and purchase their products. This model fell apart in the early television era, when the higher expense of TV program production simply put sponsorship out of reach for too many advertisers.

In the 1950s, the “magazine plan” came to the rescue! Expanding the existing concept of “spot” advertising across the schedule, broadcasters began selling short chunks of time within a program, say 1 or 2 minutes, to different advertisers. This strategy was called the magazine plan, because, like magazines, advertisements from different advertisers were scattered about and inserted interstitially throughout the program content, in contrast to sponsorship, in which one advertiser controlled the time, the program, and the advertising.

The magazine plan was a boon not only to broadcasters, who could sell less time for more money, but for advertisers. Instead of trying to attract audiences to one sponsored program, an advertiser could follow audiences to the many programs audiences preferred. The discrete, separable, mobile, inserted commercials provided advertisers with flexibility and relieved them from the burden of program production, a burden most were glad to be rid of.

Today, however, the magazine plan on television is showing its age. Television viewing is less and less linear. Viewers do not have to sit through commercials to get to the program. Viewers can timeshift, fast forwarding through ads; viewers can watch online, tab hopping while waiting through pre-roll ads. Although the majority of television viewers still see the traditional “magazine plan” commercials, a generational shift away from linear viewing is inevitable.

Hence, advertisers are experimenting with sponsorship & product placement, not to mention all manner of new media and social media platforms to reach the audiences they were once sure to reach on linear television. Are the advantages of the discrete, mobile commercials of the magazine plan fading?

Commercials that in the past would have been featured only on linear television are finding audiences on YouTube. The advertising that attracts YouTube viewers has to be interesting in and of itself. To get an audience, the commercial cannot depend on the context of a program. The commercial has to be “content” itself. This commercial has over 35,000,000 views on YouTube:  Is this an indication of a growing advertising strategy? Rather than greater integration of advertising into content, as in the sponsorship model, instead a greater emphasis on making advertising an interesting form of content itself.

 If so, will advertising be conceptualized differently? What will happen to the 15 or 30 second format? Will it shrink or expand? And if demand grows for more interesting commercials, will there be an advertising “Creative Revolution” of the 2010s as there was in the 1960s? 

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