Are commercials an endangered species?

Fascinating little Variety story here reporting on the Television Critics Association events going on this week. It covers comments from Netflix’s chief content officer regarding whether his company might make their ratings public. Gist: “Why would we do that?” Money quote: “If people watch it at a certain time, it doesn’t matter. It’s not our business to attract people at certain times so I can sell them Ford trucks.”

Ouch. Every network suit in the room probably had an anxiety attack.

Being in the media biz, I understand well the reality of ad-supported content. (Please, go buy something at Amazon, wouldja?) However, the current status quo for running video ads during breaks in TV content is rapidly becoming Jurassic. First-world humans no longer crowd around a big box in the living room every evening to get the majority of their daily information and entertainment. Modern life, even for older folks and families with relatively set daily schedules, simply doesn’t allow for the prime-time appointment viewing that the live-air TV model was built on. And thus live-air commercials aren’t allowed for, either. Almost no viewer alive these days hasn’t at least got used to the notion of recording a show to watch at another time. This means on-demand purveyors like Netflix and Hulu are making traditional TV folks very nervous indeed, because they’re upending the entire structure of the business of delivering short-form, serialized video entertainment. They are proving that audiences will pay for content via subscription or pay-per-view fees, and therefore that video ad breaks are no longer necessary to generate production funds and profits.

And me? I couldn’t be happier.

First, as an entertainment consumer, as this will increase the availability of the stuff I want to see on my own schedule. Also, as a creator: Stuffing content into 4 or 6 acts over 42 minutes means it’s incredibly hard to build dramatic tension. There’s a reason premium channels and PBS win awards every year, and it ain’t just the awesome costumes. And finally, as someone crusading for social justice: it means 30- and 60-second videos trying to sell things by appealing to Id-level impulses in general audiences are going the way of the dodo.

Now, I’m not so much of an anti-capitalist that I detest advertising in itself. I can’t say as I necessarily like it, but it does have a genuine purpose in informing consumers of new products or pricing they might not be aware of. Unless you’re living in a mud hut in the wilderness, chances are you do buy goods and services, and at least occasionally, you do so because an ad informed you that they were available, or could be had for a more reasonable price than you thought. It’s when ads start getting into what marketers call “creating a need” that it gets icky. Everyone on the planet knows Coke and Pepsi exist. So why advertise for them? To convince people that drinking carbonated water sweetened with Frankensugar is what you do if you want someone of your favorite gender to find you sexually attractive. And when these ads are a minute long, louder than the actual content and you’re forced to sit there and stare at them while you wait for your content to come back on, they end up pickling your brain. (Which is, of course, exactly as the corps in question want it. A public that’s constantly worried about whether they’re x enough is a public to whom you can sell entirely useless or even harmful crap at a ridiculous markup.)

On the other hand, when a website serves me up an unobtrusive, inoffensive banner ad that’s actually tailored to the content there, it’s a lot more palatable than having to sit through yet another sexist beer commercial. And yes, I do sometimes click on those ads if they’re informing me of a product or price that interests me. Take Alaska Airlines. Their banner ads almost never do a hard sell. They don’t try to make me feel inadequate or less worthy of happiness unless I buy their product. They just tell me that they have, say, some really good airfares to Kauai. I may not be in the market for said airfares at the immediate moment, but I at least don’t feel insulted by them, and on occasion, I appreciate having that information available. (On the other hand: virtually every site seems to be using one of those rotating banner ads that occasionally throws up one promoting horrid snake-oil-esque diet and beauty products. Gross.)  Still, even icky banner ads don’t take up nearly the mental real estate that a video commercial does, and therefore their negative effects are considerably mitigated.

This is not to say that all static ads are necessarily less harmful, content-wise, than video or audio ones. Full-page glossies in magazines can be just as horrid, for instance, and I can only imagine the awful stuff that ends up on ESPN.com. But the difference there is that those horrid ads are tightly tailored exactly to the people reading the magazine or viewing the site in question. Because magazines (and their online equivalents) are hyper-focused on specific demographics, they’re not only less damaging in general, but more effective. Yes, video and audio ads can be tailored to a degree to the demos most likely to be tuning in to a particular piece of content, but they’re still far more broad than the micro markets of print and pixels. Honestly, Syfy: I’m really not in the market for ED meds when I’m trying to watch Warehouse 13, y’know?

Video and audio ads can have a legitimate place in a modern media landscape, but how they’re made is going to have to change. Rather than 60-second movies appealing to the lowest common denominator that might be watching some live-aired cop show on CBS, they can instead be tailored to the exact people who choose to watch a streaming version of that show. In fact, online streaming is a gold mine for marketers, because it usually comes with loads more viewer data than even Nielsen ratings can account for. Make your viewers register on the site to see the shows, and you have age, sex, location, etc. that makes targeting a breeze. More bang for the advertising buck should make everyone happier.

Of course, the people who won’t be happier about this are the distributors whose billion-dollar revenues come from those 60-second movies aired on a living-room box. The more advertisers realize that people aren’t actually watching their ads because they’re time/device/location shifting, the less they’re going to be willing to pay TV channels for that airtime. There’s a reason reality shows, especially competition shows, are such common fare these days. Not only are they cheaper to make, but they’re one of the few things (outside of sports) that people will actually sit down to watch live. It’s the biggest reason TV nets haven’t already gone belly up. But there’s only so much of that they can sustain, long-term. Ten years from now–maybe even less–I foresee several networks moving exclusively to online distribution, much like how print newspapers and magazines are ditching their dead-tree editions in favor of websites. Cable and satellite companies can still act as distribution aggregators for this shift, and still make subscription-fee revenue, but the concept of a numbered TV channel you tune into is eventually going to be seen by Gen X’s kids the same way we now see landline phones.

This guy at Netflix isn’t saying anything the network suits don’t already know. He’s just saying it out loud, and thus pointing out the naked emperor. Those revealed as bare-assed can now either admit that he’s right, and start shifting gears to adapt to the new reality, or they can dig their heels in and become as extinct as drive-in movie theaters. Their choice.

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About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
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