Stay Tuned/The Decline and Fall of Push and the Evolution of Pull

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

The Decline and Fall of Push (and the Evolution of Pull)
18 November 2007

There are a number of reasons why these pages haven't had an update since July, but they all distill to the same reason: Does anyone care?

I don't mean just in the local sense of who is and isn't reading these particular words. The broader question is the more interesting one: Does anyone care about advertising anymore?

Of course, the "anyone" in that sentence demands elaboration. Obviously, if you depend on advertising as the means of getting customers to patronize your establishment or buy your products, the topic is of interest. If you work for an advertising firm, the topic is absolutely riveting. But what about the rest of us - the erstwhile consumers (as opposed to creators or employers) of advertising?

The conventional wisdom these days seems to be that the public will skip or ignore advertising whenever possible. In fact, it may be a subconscious reaction - there's evidence that, especially for people under thirty who have grown up steeped in it, advertising just washes over the brain without generating much of a reaction. Background noise. (Please note that there are also people who dispute this theory.)

Today's Boston Globe has an article about the rise of the DVR and how it is changing the face of the television commercial - because when people watch shows they have recorded, they skip the commercials. This isn't a new panic - advertisers have been fretting about this since the days of the VCR. Granted, it's never been as easy to skip the ads as it is today. Also, something very important has just happened in the way television shows are rated, something you may have missed:

But DVRs aren't the only incentive media companies have to get consumers to watch ads: New technology from Nielsen allows advertisers to pay for viewership of ad breaks - not programs, as had long been the case. While the change this TV season so far hasn't had an impact, in the long run it could mean less ad revenue for networks.

Got that? Suddenly advertisers don't have to pay rates for how popular the show is, but how popular the advertisement is (which is all they really cared about to begin with). And, just like that, suddenly it's not just the advertisers who are doing the running and screaming, but also the networks, who were already worried about hemorrhaging viewers anyway.

Surely their panic is justified this time, in other words. And yet ....

I get a little tired of the corporate/commercial sector saying, "Oh, horrors, the world is ending, our way of doing business is going away forever! Woe! Despair!" and hoping that the drama will induce someone to accommodate them so they don't have to change, when what they really should be doing is adapting. I've seen this performance before, and it never gets prettier. Reminds me of J. Roarington Fatback, the pork king, who's upset about what shmoos will do to his business:


Mind you, as an occasional Luddite, I understand the stubborn appeal of sitting around and saying, "They'll pull this [fill in the blank] from my cold dead fingers before I change!" And it's easy to see why there's such a stench of panic in certain boardrooms, and even sympathize with it.

I've noted before that I will be the last remaining newspaper reader under the age of fifty by the time I hit that age - assuming newspapers manage to hang on that long. I love newspapers, but every time I discuss them, my peers offer only a long list of reasons why they hate them. They will not survive another generation. You can bet money on it. And with newspapers go newspaper advertisements. Every time in the past I've tried to expand the focus of this column - each time you see a break between "versions" on the contents page - it's partially been because a part of my brain says, "Why am I bothering to critique these newspaper circulars which no one of my generation actually reads? Why am I not reporting on television ads or other media?"

The ads which were the initial raison d'etre of this column have looked increasingly moribund since its beginning. But now television ads are looking pretty endangered too - at least in their current format, about which more in a moment. Cinema advertising, though on the rise, is extremely unpopular, and no one's really sure of the future of "going to the movies" anyway. (You don't want to be a theatre operator right now. Trust me.)

Web advertising is still, despite years of trying to get it right, a great unknown, and the advertising industry is not confident in it; the buzz is that even when it produces consistent revenue, the money is small - more than enough to keep, say, a pair of entrepreneurs in business (Homestar Runner et al), but not enough to let General Mills' new brand line make a profit.

So where do we go from here?

I've made no secret of the fact that I don't think much of network television. I've griped about it in many places over the years - the vapid content, the increasing proportion of each hour given over to advertising (so much so that when British shows, which are often actually good, are shown over here, they have to be cut to shreds), the bugs and banners and other desperate attempts to hold an audience that pop onscreen at all times, the compression or omission of credits so they can hawk another show before you've finished watching this one, and on and on ....

But here's the thing: None of those is the actual reason I don't watch a lot of television. After all, there are plenty of cable channels which offer better than network fare, and some of them treat the viewer in a civilized fashion. It's not as if there are no options for me.

The real reason I don't watch a lot of television is that I am a viewer who simply will not dedicate more than a couple of hours a week to the practice, and the short spans where I am willing to sit down and watch something passively seldom coincide with the airtimes of the things I want to watch.

This is what people are really trying to beat with their DVRs. The ability to skip past the advertisements is just a bonus. People are trying to arrange the times of the programs they want to see to fit a schedule that's more to their liking. They're trying to beat such idiotic network practices as each network scheduling the only good show in their lineup at the same time as the other networks' only good shows. They're trying to get around the fact that the show they dearly love is on at exactly the time when they always have to pick up the kid from a soccer game, or some other real-life event. They're trying to have their lives and have TV too. The problem with the television is that it has always been so demanding. It wants to eat your existence. The DVR is the consumer pushing back.

DVRs don't work for me, however, because I forget when I record something and never go back to watch it. That's not the way my brain works. Furthermore, I don't want to have to remember to record something; I don't want to have to predict in advance what I'll want to watch later. I want to be able to not only watch exactly what I want to watch, but watch it on a whim.

Impossible, you say? Too demanding? Unreasonable? Not in the least.

Right now, operational at this very moment, is a feature in my cable box called On Demand. If I suddenly get the urge to watch a movie I haven't seen in a while, I can poke around in its listings and if I get lucky, it might be there. If I missed last week's "Top Gear," I can go into the On Demand menus and find it. The things I watch this way can be paused and rewound and fast-forwarded just like DVR recordings. But I didn't have to tell the DVR to record them. It's an archive of shows stored somewhere at the cable company, a library, that I can exploit when and as I see fit. In fact its only real problem is that its selection is currently rather whimsical and quite limited.

One day, if everything goes right, all of television will be like On Demand. What a "new television season" will mean is that someone has commissioned a new batch of episodes and they have now become available for viewing. Want to watch the whole season's new "Heroes" episodes in one marathon go? Your call. Want to ration them out slowly? You can do that too. Just now discovered the show and want to start from season one? No problem - we have full archives. After all, this is all just digital storage now - it's data; it's files on a big disk drive back at the cable HQ. It is now incredibly cheap to store vast amounts of back data. And if you can keep making a slow, steady revenue stream from it, why wouldn't you?

But, you say, this is a total overthrow of the paradigm. (Well, maybe you don't say that. But something equivalent to it.) Fee structures would change entirely. Broadcast television would cease to exist. And advertisers would be completely screwed. Well, in order of those points: 1) Yes, and it's about time; 2) Yes, but the writing was on the wall anyway; and 3) What an interesting point.

Television is a push medium. Apart from On Demand and other such services, you take what you are given; you don't get to choose, other than to choose to change the channel. But increasingly, as a society, we are turning away from push media and moving to pull media. Apart from a few cranks like me, we don't want the newspaper to choose what news we see; we want to go out to the web sites and aggregate our own news. We don't want to depend on television to show us what we want to see; we'll get a torrent or go find a bad clip of it on YouTube, even to the extent of taking a huge hit in the quality of the medium. We'd rather have grainy, choppy video than be at the mercy of the television programmers. Apparently.

If that's the case then the problem is, we need to fully make the leap. Go all the way, as proposed above - all content is demand-driven content. Now, here's the crucial part: Advertising is content too.

If you're a habitual ad-skipper you may not think that way. I'm sure many of my peers honestly don't see ads as content; they see ads as nuisances, or, as I said above, background noise. But that perception is largely fostered by your continually being exposed to ads you don't want to see!

And while you ponder that, a word from people who are stepping tentatively toward the same idea, but doing it in a way that is not necessarily the one you want:

TiVo Inc., for instance, recently introduced a graphic overlay that can appear when a TiVo subscriber fast-forwards past an ad. A viewer might see the advertiser's logo, for example, even as the ad whooshes past. TiVo users can sometimes even choose to click and see more information, says Karen Bressner, TiVo's senior vice president of ad sales.

For its part, Cox Communications is testing a new effort in Orange County, Calif., making select programs from NBC, ESPN, and ABC free via video-on-demand; in exchange, viewers who select those options are told in a five-second message that fast-forwarding past ads isn't available. In 2008, Cox plans to take things a step further when it tests inserting specific ads in the video-on-demand selections, says David Porter, vice president of new media advertising at Cox Media. So if a viewer watches "Desperate Housewives" on a Tuesday, the ads could be updated for the time of viewing or even targeted at particular households.

Read those quoted paragraphs carefully, yea, verily, for they are harbingers of things to come.

I have a "Plus" account with LiveJournal. What that means is that, rather than pay a subscription fee, I see advertisements when I use the site. The network television model, in other words, rather than the cable television model. I don't mind the ads, but I wish they were more interesting. For a while now, the ads have had a "Customize" link below them which is supposed to help you pick ads which are more to your tastes and market needs; it's a good idea, but it doesn't work very well, I think partially because there are a limited number of ads in the pool to choose from. (Most of the ads, in fact, are house ads for LiveJournal services, which means they're not getting many real takers.) But it's a start - an idea in the right direction.

Why not have the ability to choose your television ads as well as your programs?

It would be a plus for the viewer, who only has to see ads which are at least marginally acceptable to him (of course, there may never be a preferences questionaire selective enough to say "only show me ads that are actually funny" or "show me all Target ads unless they ever change advertising agencies," but it'd be a start). It would also be a plus for the advertiser - think about it. It's pre-targeted; they already know they are reaching an audience that has at least a chance of buying their products, because that audience has told them so by choosing to see those types of ads! (And if everyone suddenly says, "Stop showing me Coke Zero ads," it will be easier for them to correctly deduce, "wow, that campaign really was stupid." Instant market research! And advertisers are forever complaining about lack of reliable market feedback ...)

There would be issues, of course. For one thing, it's tricky to opt in or out of a category of product or advertising you don't know exists. Advertisers dread missed markets just as much as they dread wrong markets. In other words, they're always trying to balance the risk of advertising to people who are never, never going to buy that particular product with the risk of not advertising to the person who never knew that product existed but is likely to buy it once he finds out about it.

This means, among other things, that even though none of the viewers of "Desperate Housewives" may think they want to see ads for Old Spice, the advertiser may believe otherwise, and will be really annoyed if the demand method doesn't allow him to get a piece of that action. So there will be resistance.

But resistance be damned; the ability to choose ads is something consumers should try very hard to obtain for themselves. Because here's the bottom line: All-demand media is coming. In your lifetime perhaps, or maybe in your kid's lifetime. But it's coming. Network television is fighting a brave last stand, it just doesn't look like it yet. Movie theatres already know they're living on a thin edge. Newspapers which haven't seen the writing on the wall by now are in denial; most of them are keeping a rear guard and are waiting until the last man leaves to turn the lights out.

If you're going to have all-demand media, you are going to have non-negotiable ads. Oh, sure, you can hold out for a future where the cost of buying each chunk of content is sufficient to make a profit for the content providers - or, in English, "The cable company makes its money from what I pay for each show I grab on demand, so why do they need advertising at all?" A compelling idea, but ask yourself this: If that came true, how and where would advertisers advertise?

Billboards? Many people regard them as background noise and a lot of communities are clamping down on them as visual pollution. Magazines? Periodicals in this country are doing as badly as newspapers, if not worse. What are they going to do, write graffiti on walls? Bring back the sandwich-board man and the street hawker? Do you really think advertisers are going to lie down and die quietly?

No, I tell you again: In the all-demand universe, there will be non-negotiable ad content; ads you can't skip, ads you can't avoid. Best to start early campaigning now for the ability to at least pick the ones you can endure.

This has been a prophecy. Stay tuned for updates as they happen.

and now back to our program

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