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eLearning Series


Boulder, CO: 06/19/02

Skipping TV Commercials Equals Stealing? Advertising Execs Think So.

Do you have the right to skip over TV commercials, in the privacy of your own home? According to TV execs, technology that allows you to skip ads amounts to stealing. Am I stealing from the TV networks when I get up during a commercial break to get more pretzels to dunk in my jar of peanut butter?

As a courtesy to all of us who wander into the kitchen between the action-packed segments of our favorite shows, advertisers usually increase the volume so that we won’t miss out on their messages during our food-gathering journeys. New digital video recorders allow you to easily record your favorite shows regardless of time of day or VCR programming skills. (How many of you have a piece of tape over the flashing 12:00 clock on your VCR because you’ve given up trying to even set the clock?) These devices use inexpensive computer hard drives instead of analog videotapes, but to save storage space, the software can detect that telltale increase in volume and skip over the commercials.

It’s also easier than ever to record, for example, all instances of Star Trek during the next week. And when I want to watch four hours of back-to-back episodes, I don’t have to wait for the prescribed, mass-broadcast time. Like surfing around the Internet in search of information, a digital video recorder puts me in control. Once the information is digitally recorded – it’s easy for me to zap a copy of a favorite episode to a friend via a high speed Internet connection. TV executives could embrace this new way of viewing television programming. But rather than figure out a way to leverage this opportunity into a business advantage – the old-school, mass-broadcast establishment lashed out and attacked. TV executives are visibly threatened by this personalized, pre-recorded television viewing experience – and have fought hard to ban the devices from the United States.

Such digital recording devices threaten their bread and butter – the beloved 30-second TV commercial. What else but a Superbowl ad can command $86,000 per second? The courts have ruled that it’s okay for me to record a few episodes of Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) onto a videotape, and send the tape via snail mail to my long-lost relative in a different part of the world where they can’t watch the show. If I sit in front of the VCR and hit ‘pause’ at the beginning of a commercial break and press ‘start’ when the show begins again, it’s still permissible. So why is it suddenly not okay to use technology to skip commercials and my DSL connection to send the same program digitally? Because it’s digital, I’m a thief? This sounds a lot like a conspiracy with the post office – the organization that is already worried about becoming obsolete due to email and online bill paying?

The 30-second TV commercial won’t go away anytime soon. But the days of annoying the entire football-watching population of the world with an irrelevant, $2.6 million message on Superbowl Sunday are slowly giving way to targeted, permission-based marketing. Perhaps the network television execs should spend their time embracing a different model instead of trying to ban new technologies. One such model is the advertising-sponsored email newsletter – where you, the reader, find stories like this one compelling enough to read that you actually sign up to receive an email message, five days a week. With an advertising-sponsored email newsletter, advertisements are embedded between paragraphs, or stuck out in the right margin. They don’t require you to stop reading, mid-sentence, for a commercial break. And if an ad is more interesting than the article, then you can meander and find out more.

Advertisers who think that the reader of this newsletter may be just the audience they want to reach – can get their message across in a very cost-effective and timely way. (Hint to prospective advertisers: you can probably have your message placed in the right column for a bit less than $2.6 million a pop). Paid content providers like cable and satellite providers claim that people who use digital recording devices to zap a digitally-recorded program between devices over the Internet are stealing from their protected content. Viewed through the lens of a different business model, forwarding a digitally-recorded television program to a friend isn’t a “theft of service” but a way that like-minded viewers can share interesting shows. Advertisers will benefit because their messages are actually displayed in greater numbers each time the episode is shared.

In the information age, power comes from sharing information with others, not hoarding it behind private walls. But until television advertising shifts from its current model of 30-second commercial breaks, take comfort that when you answer the telephone in between segments of your favorite show, it’s the telemarketer on the other end of the line who is “stealing” commercial time from the network execs.

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