The nation’s big media companies are on a new mission: finding ways to unite thousands of individual binge-watchers into a cohesive mass audience.

Madison Avenue is eager to chase consumers moving from TV to new streaming hubs like Paramount Plus, Peacock and HBO Max. But when advertisers do, they find a much different set of viewing patterns than they do on the old familiar screen. Streaming viewers can watch whatever they like, whenever they want. Traditional couch potatoes still gather in one big national group to watch, all at once, a broadcast of the Super Bowl, “Law & Order: SVU” or the “CBS Evening News.”

To get more advertisers to move their dollars to streaming, the TV executives are working furiously to gather all the streaming fans for the same advertising experience. It’s not going to be easy.

On May 17, consumer-products giant Unilever launched a new “spotlight” ad on NBCUniversal’s Peacock that aims to herd the cats. Unilever was guaranteed that no matter what people were watching during primetime hours, the first ad users would be served in a commercial break would be a Unilever spot highlighting the company’s employees participating in a “Day of Service.” Rob Master, vice president of media and digital engagement, says the format helps Unilever catch the same kind of large audiences it already gets in TV primetime — and that it will need if more dollars are to move to streaming video.

“We are working with them to own a moment,” the executive says of Peacock. “This serves as a way to drive home a specific campaign and message.”

NBCUniversal expects others to seek out its “spotlight,” says Laura Molen, president of the company’s advertising sales and partnerships division. The new format is the result of direct requests from advertisers who take part in a “streaming council” NBCU holds with its clients, she says. “We asked them, ‘What else do you want?’ It really kept coming back that they wanted the ability to go from one to many. There had to be a way to hit many people.”

Fulfilling that request may be critical to the media companies’ efforts in weeks to come. The entire sector is in the midst of its annual “upfront” ad-sales market, when U.S. TV companies try to sell the bulk of their ad inventory for the next cycle of programs to Madison Avenue. More advertisers are fascinated by streaming video, but they are also wary. Simply put, the ads on streaming outlets tend to reach smaller groups of audiences, members of which are watching whatever they like at any time they desire.

Already, advertisers are skeptical of the demands the networks have placed on streaming inventory. NBCU said in March it intends to seek ad rates for Peacock that are on par with traditional TV.

It’s easy to find people who want to buy a car or see a movie or who love to shop for insurance via interactive hubs, set-top boxes and remotes that let viewers click if they like an offer. But if streaming is to grow significantly, as the networks hope it does, it will need to pull more of the viewer masses that still show up for traditional TV.

Others are testing crowd-teasing concepts as well. WarnerMedia is offering a format known as a “brand block” for the ad-supported version of HBO Max, slated to launch in June. The idea, says JP Colaco, allows an advertiser to “own an entire streaming experience,” or have only its ads run in a specific episode of a program that has only limited interruptions. “It includes the standard 15s and 30s, but also custom units in mid-roll,” he says. “A brand shuts out all the clutter and owns the stream, and that can have a really huge impact with the customer.”

A sponsor could even use the concept to tell a longer story over the course of the show, he suggested. The executive said “several” advertisers had expressed interest in the concept but declined to mention specific clients.

Unilever has discussed buying ads with other streaming services, including HBO Max and Paramount Plus, says Master, the ad executive. He thinks the outlets need to lure even more subscribers to their ad-supported versions if they are to truly take off.

Meanwhile, the TV networks are going to try and sell streaming as if it were the next iteration of, well, TV. With the new “spotlight” ad, says NBCU’s Molen, “rather than targeting beauty enthusiasts, you are targeting a day and a time period, like traditional broadcast or linear television.”

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