Do Not Adjust Your Set.

Popeye!For a media guy, I don’t really watch a lot of TV. When I was a kid, I did. LOTS of TV. In fact, my folks told me that my first word wasn’t “Mama” or “Dada,” but “Popeye.” They also told me that I used to run out of the room when the programs were on, and run back in to watch the commercials. Frankly, they thought I was nuts. As an adult, I’ve learned that the average network 30 second spot has the same budget as a 30 MINUTE television sit-com. Think about that. second for second, the commercial has better acting, much better special effects, better writing, frequently better story lines, and better directing. I’m afraid, though, that television is changing, and the way advertising works (or doesn’t work) is changing, too. Let me explain…

Consider this – the advent of the Digital Video Recorder is changing how – and when (much less IF) TV spots are viewed. We have a DVR at my house, courtesy of DISH Network. Before long, all the cable companies will offer them, too. The DVR is an idea whose time has come. We have the ability to record any show we like, any time we like, and watch it whenever we like.

This is way cool.

This has changed the way we watch television.

This changes the balance of power between the advertiser and the audience.

When we watch a show we’ve Tivo’d (you can tell DVRs have reached the tipping point – the name of the first mover in the market has become a verb), we flip through the commercial breaks, 30 seconds or so at a time. That typically means that we might – MIGHT – watch the first part of the first commercial during the break, then a second or so of wherever the skip button lands, then the last part of the last commercial in the break. If I skip through anything that looks interesting, I will occasionally skip back to watch it. Ocassionally. And remember, I’m a marketing guy. I write, direct, and produce commercials for a living.

If you’re not seeing a problem here for television networks and advertisers, you are not paying attention.

Here’s the problem. When we buy media for our customers, the first thing I’m going to ask the broadcasters is about securing the first spot or last spot during the break. If that’s not possible, then I want a discount. A BIG discount. Why? Because I know that, whatever their demographics say, most of their audience with DVRs is probably missing the spots in the middle of the break. THis makes the best of a bad situation, but it’s no solution. For those of you that think that some kind of manditory change to the hardware that will make it harder – or impossible – to skip commercials is gonna happen, think again. There’s no way to put that horse back in the barn, once it’s gotten out. Consumers are not going to want to go back to the dark ages of being forced to watch the commercials again. What’s more, hackers will find a way to restore the skip functionality, if it is removed in the future.

So what IS the solution? I think we’ll see even more junk superimposed over programs. Think CNN’s Headline News or Bloomberg TV is busy? Just wait. I think that your local news will have the same kinds of constant, busy graphics within the next couple of years. (Gotta fill up all that 16:9 extra horizontal space with something.) I think you’ll see more ads at the bottom of the screen during programs. The lack of complaints received about the constant teasers run to promote upcoming shows simply means that ads during the shows aren’t far away. But I think one thing will remain a constant even as the way we watch TV changes – a constant that will get more attention for a commercial message regardless of where or how it airs. So what is this magic bullet?

Call it the “compelling” factor. I believe – with all my heart and soul – that compelling, well-written, clever commercials will always attract attention. Dull, boring commercials will always be overlooked. That doesn’t mean that a great spot run in the middle of a commercial break will work – after all, if a spot is unseen, it can’t work. But this does mean that you are wasting your money if you choose to run spots that are “business as usual” – spots that never push the envelope and strive to be more entertaining than the programs they interrupt. t

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