A couple of days ago, I happened upon an article in the Los Angeles Times about Firebrand, a new media company dedicated exclusively to commercials. Its TV show, “Firebrand,” premiered Monday and airs weeknights from 11 pm to 12 am on ION Television. The show consists entirely of commercials, some as pure entertainment and some as paid placements (though the spots aren’t explicitly distinguished by either category).
Are viewers clamoring to sit through an hour of commercials? Firebrand certainly has big backing — its investors include Microsoft, NBC Universal, and GE’s Peacock Equity Fund. And its CEO and co-founder, John Lack, was one of the minds behind MTV.
In fact, Firebrand’s show takes a page from MTV by featuring “commercial jockeys,” or CJs, who introduce the commercial spots, offering background information. The role is presumably analogous to that of a VJ on MTV. According to the LA Times, Lack even believes Firebrand could be the next MTV, which, in writer Alana Semuels’ words, “showed videos that weren’t much more than commercials for musicians.”
But are music videos and commercials really equivalent? Sure, music videos promote musicians, as commercials promote products and services. But music videos are tied to creative works, and the best ones, like all-time great “Thriller,” are themselves intrinsic creative endeavors for the musician. That’s hard to say of commercials. They may be entertaining, but no marketer cares about achieving an artistic goal; ultimately, it’s all about the brand. This distinction surely isn’t lost on a viewer being shilled product after product.
In this light, it’s easy to laugh at co-founder and chief creative officer Román Viñoly’s statement that “what marginalizes commercials is the programming that interrupts it, not the other way around.” I don’t think commercials are that compelling for most viewers. Firebrand’s press release, for instance, mentions future appearances by “commercial celebrities” such as the “Dell Dude,” which is revealing in itself. How many people even know the Dell Dude’s name? Will they care about what commercials he considers his favorites?
Also not counting in Firebrand’s favor is its host network, ION Television, first known as PAX TV and then the i Network. PAX’s programming, if you’re not familiar with it, consists primarily of reruns of shows like “Who’s the Boss” and “Amen,” shows syndicated from other networks (like “48 Hours”), and infomercials. As a result, the network skews to an older demographic, certainly not the young, hip group suggested in this statement from Firebrand’s press release:
“Firebrand is the best of commercial culture dished up in a way to appeal best to the group most likely to ‘get it’ — the Gen Y Millennials — who are already checking out this stuff online, on TV and on their mobile devices,” says Shari F. Leventhal, Chief Marketing Officer.
Ultimately, it seems that Firebrand serves advertisers rather than any viewing demographic. One post on marketing blog GrokDotCom suggests as much, calling Firebrand “the ad industry’s collective Wet 2.0 dream.” And as an article from the the New York Post points out, “A show that is essentially one long commercial break seems like a non-starter considering the popularity of TiVo and other ad-zapping devices, but Madison Avenue loves the idea of ads as entertainment.” Writer Holly Sanders adds, “Because Firebrand’s backers are buying ad time during which to air the show, rather than the network paying them for the programming, as is usually the case, Lack said he can make money from even marginal ratings. Advertisers pay rates based on a show’s TV ratings.”
All is far from lost for Firebrand, however. The TV show is accompanied by a Web site where viewers can not only watch clips but also embed them onto their own pages and download copies for their computer, iPod, or mobile device. Podcasts of the show are also available on iTunes.
These offerings may give Firebrand an edge over other ad sites such as TBS’ Very Funny Ads and Budweiser’s Bud.tv (largely considered a bust). Branded clips also allow for a higher standard of production quality than the average YouTube clip, and Firebrand may become a popular destination for viewers looking for more polished, though not necessarily more entertaining, video clips. Also a plus is Firebrand’s inclusion of foreign ads and ads that never made it to television (mostly because of censoring), as noted in GrokDotCom’s follow-up.
Time will tell the magnitude of Firebrand’s success or failure. But for now, the venture seems potentially lucrative for the Web but fairly ridiculous in its present incarnation on TV.
Would you watch “Firebrand” or visit the website? I’d love to hear some other opinions.