Linear TV Advertising: What Is It and How Does It Work?

Last Updated: June 9, 20247.6 min readCategories: Marketing, TV Advertising

Linear TV advertising remains a vital tool for reaching large audiences, despite the rise of digital and streaming media. But, what is it and how does it work?

In this article, we will demystify the concept of linear television, explain its traditional role in the advertising landscape, and outline how it continues to be a valuable medium.

What is Linear TV?

Linear TV is a traditional broadcast format where programming is scheduled and delivered to viewers via cable, satellite, or over-the-air channels.

Viewers tune in to specific channels at set times, following a predetermined schedule. Unlike streaming services, linear TV requires audiences to adjust their viewing to the broadcaster’s timetable, reinforcing its characteristic “linear” nature.

Is Linear TV Still Relevant?

Linear TV remains relevant due to its ability to reach large, diverse audiences with live events, sports, and popular shows. Despite the rise of streaming services, many advertisers still rely on its broad reach and trusted content for brand exposure and audience engagement.

With that said, linear TV viewership is declining over time, as younger audiences “cut the cord” and switch to on-demand viewing.

What is Linear TV Advertising?

Linear TV advertising involves placing commercials within scheduled television programming on traditional broadcast or cable channels.

For linear options like cable TV advertising, marketers buy slots during specific shows or time blocks, strategically reaching audiences aligned with their target demographics. This form of TV advertising capitalizes on television’s extensive reach, providing brands with significant exposure to diverse viewer groups.

Linear TV vs Connected TV (CTV)

The primary difference between linear TV and connected TV (CTV) is that CTV delivers on-demand streaming content through internet-connected television sets, offering flexible, personalized viewing options.

In contrast, linear TV requires viewers to follow scheduled programming on traditional broadcast channels, making CTV more adaptable to individual preferences.

Linear TV vs Over-The-Top (OTT)

Over-the-top (OTT) services stream content directly over the internet, enabling viewers to access their favorite shows and movies on demand via apps or smart devices (not just television sets).

Linear TV, again, doesn’t offer this flexibility as all of its content airs on a predetermined schedule.

Linear TV vs. Streaming TV

Streaming TV delivers on-demand content via internet-connected devices on apps like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and many others.

This is just another phrase that can broadly describe both CTV and OTT content delivery, rather than the pre-scheduled programming you’d find on linear TV.

Benefits of Linear TV Ads

Linear TV advertising continues to offer distinct benefits for brands seeking impactful marketing opportunities. Some of its advantages are:

1. Broad Audience Reach

With linear TV’s established presence in households nationwide, advertisers can access a diverse range of viewers across different demographics. This expansive reach ensures a brand’s message is broadcast to millions in one go.

2. High Viewer Engagement

Viewers of linear TV are often highly engaged, particularly during live broadcasts of events and popular shows. This attention increases the likelihood of ads capturing and retaining audience interest.

3. Credibility and Trust

TV remains a trusted medium, and advertisements on well-known networks can lend brands a level of credibility. This trust translates to increased consumer confidence in the products or services promoted.

4. Effective Brand Building

Linear TV’s visual and auditory appeal makes it an excellent platform for memorable storytelling, helping brands leave a lasting impression. Consistent ad placements can reinforce brand messaging and shape public perception over time.

5. Strong Regional Targeting

Local TV channels provide advertisers with an opportunity to target specific regions, aligning their messages with local interests and demographics. The regional focus of local TV advertising allows for tailored campaigns that resonate strongly within targeted communities.

Disadvantages of Linear TV Ads

While linear TV advertising offers valuable benefits, it also comes with certain drawbacks marketers should consider.

1. Limited Audience Targeting

Linear TV ads offer less precise targeting compared to programmatic advertising alternatives like CTV, as ads are broadcast to a broad audience. This limitation can lead to less efficient spending when trying to reach niche demographics.

2. High Advertising Costs

Producing and placing TV commercials often requires substantial budgets. The high costs can be prohibitive, particularly for smaller brands seeking regular exposure.

3. Declining Viewership

The rise of streaming services and CTV growth has led to a gradual decline in linear viewership, particularly among younger demographics. This TV viewership trend poses challenges for advertisers aiming to reach specific age groups.

4. Inflexible Scheduling

With set programming schedules, linear TV advertising lacks the flexibility of digital platforms. Advertisers must adapt to predetermined slots, which may not align perfectly with campaign strategies.

5. Difficult Measurement and Attribution

Linear TV measurement lacks the precise tracking available with digital ads, making it harder to gauge campaign impact. As a result, advertisers often struggle to attribute ROI to specific commercials or strategies. This is why linear TV is better for demand generation than it is for performance marketing.

How Does Linear TV Advertising Work?

Understanding how linear TV advertising works is crucial for maximizing its impact and return on investment. Here is a basic step-by-step process for how it works:

  • Step 1 – Set Clear Objectives: Define your campaign goals, such as increasing brand awareness, promoting a new product, or driving store visits.
  • Step 2 – Identify Your Target Audience: Research and determine the demographic and viewing habits of your ideal customers to align with the appropriate networks and shows.
  • Step 3 – Choose the Right Networks and Time Slots: Select TV networks and programming that align with your audience’s preferences and habits. Prime-time slots or live events may be ideal for maximum exposure.
  • Step 4 – Develop a Creative Ad: Craft a compelling commercial with a clear message and strong visuals that resonate with the intended audience.
  • Step 5 – Purchase Ad Slots: Work with networks or TV media buying agencies to buy ad spots based on your desired reach, target audience, and budget.
  • Step 6 – Monitor and Optimize Performance: Track campaign results through TV viewership data and response metrics, adjusting strategy and timing for future campaigns to enhance effectiveness.

How Much Does Linear TV Cost?

The cost of TV advertising on linear varies significantly based on factors like network, program popularity, and time slot. Prime-time slots on popular networks can range from thousands to millions of dollars, particularly during high-profile events like sports championships. Regional and local TV ads tend to be more affordable, offering smaller brands the opportunity to reach targeted audiences with budgets in the low thousands per commercial.

Linear TV Advertising Best Practices

Crafting effective linear TV ads involves adhering to best practices that elevate brand visibility and audience engagement. Some strategies to consider are:

  • Craft a Compelling Story: Develop a strong narrative that connects with viewers emotionally and aligns with your brand’s core message, ensuring it leaves a lasting impression.
  • Use Eye-Catching Visuals: Incorporate high-quality visuals that capture attention immediately, using creative and consistent imagery to reinforce your brand identity across platforms.
  • Optimize Timing and Frequency: Carefully schedule your ads during prime-time slots or shows that align with your target audience, airing them frequently enough to reinforce your message without oversaturation.
  • Target the Right Programs: Strategically select programs and events that attract your ideal audience, ensuring your ads are seen by viewers most likely to engage with your brand.
  • Create Multiple Versions: Produce different versions of your ads tailored for varying time slots and demographics, maximizing the impact through diverse formats and content.
  • Measurement and Refinement: Track key performance indicators to evaluate which ads, programs, and timings resonate best, then refine future campaigns based on this data.
  • Use Addressable Advertising: Leverage addressable TV advertising technology to deliver tailored ads to specific households within linear programming, ensuring personalized messaging for distinct audience segments.

Linear TV Advertising Examples

Examples of successful linear TV advertising campaigns can illustrate the effectiveness of this medium for reaching and engaging broad audiences. Here are some well-known examples:

  • Coca-Cola’s “Open Happiness”: Coca-Cola’s iconic campaign used catchy jingles and uplifting imagery to create a joyful brand association that resonated worldwide during prime-time slots.
  • Nike’s “Just Do It”: Nike’s motivational messaging and impactful storytelling, often featuring prominent athletes, aired during sports broadcasts to reinforce the brand’s core values of athleticism and determination.
  • Apple’s “Get a Mac”: Apple’s humorous and memorable series of commercials comparing Mac computers to PCs delivered consistent messaging that captured viewers’ attention, often premiering during major tech-focused events.
  • Geico’s “15 Minutes Could Save You 15%”: Geico’s repeated tagline, delivered through various quirky and memorable commercials, achieved strong brand recall by frequently airing on popular TV networks.
  • Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”: Old Spice revitalized its brand image by blending humor with a memorable character, gaining traction with viewers by placing the campaign strategically on networks catering to young men.

Linear TV Advertising: Final Thoughts

Linear TV advertising remains a valuable tool for marketers, offering broad audience reach and high engagement through trusted programming. Despite rising competition from digital platforms, it continues to thrive, especially with live events, strong brand storytelling, and regional targeting.

By understanding the advantages and challenges of linear television, brands can craft campaigns that effectively blend creativity with strategy, ensuring impactful results across their marketing goals.

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