The revolt against interruptions

A Sunday New York Times article poses the important question — “Somebody Has to Pay for TV. But Who? And How?” The story cites the usual statistics about DVRs and commercial skipping and offers a wonderful quote from Duke University law professor James Boyle:

…broadcasters offer a program knowing that only a fraction of the audience watches the commercials. Advertisers, he added, buy nothing more than “an option on a probability,” and the viewer is no more obligated to watch every commercial than a driver is obligated to read every billboard.
This analogy gives me an opportunity to share, once again, some important differences between television advertising and that which is possible via the web. It’s important, because you’ll never really “get” the opportunities that exist online unless you can look beyond the basic premise of broadcast advertising.

Over at Lost Remote, Steve Safran rightly notes in the comments to this story that professor Boyle’s analogy isn’t applicable, because TV advertising is more like toll booths along a highway than billboards. This observation is spot on, and it’s also descriptive of the difference between print advertising and broadcast advertising.

In broadcasting, there is only the signal. Advertising, therefore, must interrupt the signal. That’s why we’ve always called them “commercial interruptions.” Display advertising is entirely different, because you can surround the “signal” with advertising to pay for the content without disturbing it. Display advertising, like those billboards, is accepted by consumers, because it’s non-intrusive.

What happens when you “interrupt” a page with an advertisement? You get pop-ups and an enormous consumer backlash. A whole industry has grown around helping people avoid such, and yet we hear no complaints about it from the ad world or web publishers. Is blocking pop-ups really any different than skipping ads with a TiVo? The energy behind both efforts is identical.

Television must come up with a way to provide what amounts to display advertising along with its content. Most online video players do this, offering a clickable display ad next to the video content. In order for this to happen, however, everything about how things work over-the-air will have to change, including network/affiliate rules.

As I’ve written before, time is the new currency. The longer the commercial breaks become, the more people hit the remote or the fast-forward button. The interruption has gone beyond just an interruption, because a full one-third of prime-time viewing is now sales and marketing. That’s not an interruption; that’s a blatant disregard of precious leisure time. It’s like inviting people to call and say hello but routing them through an endless litany of options before human contact (hello, business and industry, are you listening?).

The technological innovations that are now chewing the foundation of broadcasting are — in many ways — necessities born out of the very real need of consumers to help manage their lives. It would be terribly smart of the broadcasting industry to embrace those needs and work with the disruption rather than against it.


  1. Charlie Ranlett says

    I think the solution for broadcast advertising may lay with some current trappings of Hollywood, as well as online advertising.
    For years, movies have had various promotional placements without interruption; advertising along with the content (the story in this case) comes in the form of visual or verbal messages, and though not perfect, this would work quite well in non-news broadcast environments.
    Hollywood still isn’t the best at this, despite its years of practice. While embedded in the movies, some sales and marketing jars almost as much as a commercial break — i.e., when a line or visual instance meant to market is too obvious and disrupts the flow of the movie (I recall Dakota Fanning’s completely pointless remarks about how great TiVo is in the beginning of the most recent War of the Worlds as an example — there was no point to that line other than to market).
    Obviously, this approach isn’t going to work in broadcast news, and it still doesn’t address the shortfalls that TV has over the Internet with regards to actually accessing additional content about interesting advertisers. Although, wasn’t that part of the idea behind WebTV? That didn’t work out too well. People treat TV differently from other mediums, and I think that trying to incorporate “interactive” content may not work, as TV has traditionally been a largely passive medium, and people seem to want to keep it that way.
    Still, sports TV seems to be having the beginnings of the right idea. Various moments in a game are brought to you by various companies, almost to the point of being ridiculous — at the current rate of things, it seems like there will be different sponsors for the replays of every single down in a football game. Still, with a little tweaking, sports event advertising seems to have a good foundation of displaying advertising in a non-intrusive manner. My own local news has started sticking different car company logos down on its traffic ticker in the morning (one week it’s a Chevy bowtie, the next a BMW propeller), so I think that broadcast TV may already be taking some cues from online media and working within the current TV medium, despite its limitations compared to the internet.

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