InteracTiVoty: Are Program Overlays Crashing the Party? - Mark Risis - MediaBizBlogger

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Welcome to the first posting of TiVo's InteracTiVoty, a blog about the evolving landscape of television advertising, or more accurately, advertising that happens on the TV.

We are entering an exciting time, living in history being written before our eyes, a moment characterized by a plethora of competing products, services, technologies, and providers, all vying for the attention of consumers who are beginning to feel pretty comfortable in their executive decision maker role.

Amidst this flurry of activity, new approaches to reaching the TV viewer with advertising messages continue to emerge, all seeking to take advantage of that special moment when a viewer is looking straight at the screen, consuming sight-sound-and-picture stories and filing away the messages in their conscious memory, or even better, in their subconscious. Of these, one that intrigues me most is the recent usurping of the in-program overlay by advertisers.

What started as a small station ID bug now resembles a mini movie, like a bizarro picture-in-picture, except without the neat box border or the ability to turn it off. Don't get me wrong, I love the FOX Football dancing robot, he's fun and really a great break dancer, and I certainly do appreciate and admire the exploding graphics strewn across Viacom networks that never miss the opportunity to give me the lowdown on what's coming up. These are all fine and good, but if this space continues to be exploited by advertisers, where will we ultimately end up? Is crowding the screen the only way to ensure that a brand gets in front of an advanced TV viewer - a viewer empowered with digital capabilities of Record, Rewind, Play, Pause, and Fast-Forward?

In a hypothetical football game broadcast of the near future, imagine if the robot started to pop-n-lock his way across the field just as the QB pulls back to pass on 3rd and 10, down by five, with ten seconds to go. His moves are mesmerizing, and he's holding a banner for a new sports car, one that's sure to catch the attention of a typical fan of the game. It's all beautifully done and it's sitting right on top of all the action, not fully blocking one's view but definitely a distraction and something that snaps the viewer out of the engagement and enjoyment of the game.

While that may seem like an absurd hypothetical, given the increased rate of commercial avoidance through fast forwarding (over 60% of those that can, do) or video consumption via alternative delivery methods like the web and mobile devices (doubling YTY without any sign of slowing down), it is simply a matter of time before the in-program placement becomes THE most desirable piece of media real-estate this side of the Super Bowl, and a robot holding an ad and dancing on top of a touchdown pass becomes the norm, not an exception.

Within this context, it's worth looking at the in-program units being deployed for Ask.com with a critical eye. Their 'answer bar' enters the captive viewer space with an offering of value, hoping to create a positive impression and ultimately pry someone away from Google's iron grip on the pole position in the search race.

While I'm always a proponent of advertising effectiveness over just about anything else, I do believe these units are dangerously close to crossing the line. The line I'm referring to is the abstract manifestation of the Distributor/Viewer contract established in the early days of TV advertising - viewers get content in exchange for watching ads. This contract is a living document, a careful balance of value exchange that's in a constant state of flux, review, and renegotiation. If we continue to crash the lean-back and relax party, we will cause a breach of contract, and the viewers won't sue, but move somewhere else, begrudgingly.

Should we give up and stop looking for ways to reach the empowered TV viewer? Of course not, many of our livelihoods depend on this.

But perhaps there is another way to approach this dilemma, one that seeks to establish an explicit and direct connection between the actions the empowered viewer takes to avoid linear advertising and use those instances to re-balance the contract, equalize the value proposition. Yes, you the viewer can Fast-Forward though commercials with TiVo and other DVR services, but the act of fast forwarding launches a "replacement" ad. Yes, you can Record a program and play it back whenever you want - but in exchange, and in all fairness, let us show you an ad. Want to Pause a program to get a sandwich, but then be able to fast forward through the ads when you get back - you must in turn let us tell you about at least one awesome new product, since someone has to cover the cost of making the program you so enjoy. We promise we won't make these ads as interruptive as the commercials you just avoided, but you have to give us a chance to be there, to be present and ready to snap into action as soon as you, the viewer say "OK, what you got?"

In all fairness, the units deployed by Ask.com are actually quite nice, and the fact that they tie into the content of the shows is a nice gesture to the viewer to take part and enrich their intellectual connection to the subject matter.

But at the same time, it's important that we strive to not overstep our ability to maintain that special engagement that's unique to the big screen (since the small screen is standing in the wings, all warmed up) and continue to look for ways to serve advertiser messages in a manner that are explicitly connected to the disruption the viewers are causing with their new behaviors.

Mark Risis is Director of Interactive Advertising Sales for TiVo, Inc.

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