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Billboards in Space
How Broadcasters Are Killing Commercial TV

by Glen Emerson Morris

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About the Overlay Boycott

Since this article was written over four years ago, advances in technology have made TV overlays more common, more complex and above all, more intrusive. It's not uncommon now to have up to a third of the TV screen covered with promos for other programs, and sometimes it's even worse.

If anything, this column was overly optimistic on several points. The cost of DVDs has dropped faster than I estimated, with Bullwinkle seasons now selling at $1.00 per hour or less, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents going for not much more than that. In addition, the first seasons of popular TV shows are being released on DVD before the second seasons are even broadcast. This is encouraging consumers to skip watching the shows on TV and simply wait until the series is on DVD, so they can watch it uncut, without commercials and video overlays. Worse, overlays are bigger and on screen longer, and are much more to annoying to viewers.

The future looks even worse. When the new high capacity DVDs hit the market next year, a single disk will be able to hold an entire season's worth of episodes. Prices for compete seasons will plummet, and so will network audience numbers. Tivo and other video recording technologies may allow consumers to fast forward through, or even eliminate, TV commercials, but they can't avoid overlays. The only way consumers can be sure of avoiding overlays on their favorite TV shows is to buy them on DVD. Increasingly, that's just what they're doing.

Some of the major radio networks have started rolling back the number of minutes of commercials per hour. The move is going over well with listeners. It's time television broadcasters did the same thing. Radio broadcasters were always smart enough to realize that they couldn't get away with running commercials on top of the music they played. Video overlays are the video equivalent of the same thing, and just as annoying to viewers, but TV broadcasters just don't get it.

There's no question overlays are playing a part in the exodus of the mass television audience. The question now is, should advertisers continue to fund programming practices that are actually destroying the medium?

We think the answer is no. Only advertisers have the clout to end the use of overlays, so, effective immediately are asking all television advertisers, local and national, to demand that programming that they sponsor be run without overlays of any kind, except highly transparent station ID logos.

This may seem extreme, but considering how fast TV network ratings are tanking, it may be the only action that can save commercial television.


The original column...

Amazon.com is now selling boxed sets of TV series under the headline "No Commercials Ever Again. When Once a Week Isn't Enough: TV Boxed Sets on DVD." Unfortunately, Amazon may be on to something. There's a big consumer demand to own complete sets of favorite TV series, and this has very serious long term implications for advertisers and the commercial television industry.

Most consumers only have time to watch, perhaps, four one-hour shows, not counting news, in an average evening. If they can afford to own their four most-favorite TV series on DVD, will they be watching much commercial TV? I wouldn't count on it. Especially since commercial television has placed itself at a disadvantage against the DVD challenge in two major ways. Commercial television programming is frequently incomplete, it's altered visually, and consumers are beginning to notice the difference.

Over the decades, it's become a standard practice to cut a syndicated show's running time to make room for more commercials. (The SciFi Channel not too long ago boasted that they were showing the original Star Trek series, uncut, for the first time in decades.) In the past, the practice of editing out entire scenes from shows wasn't pointed out to the public too often, and even if the public noticed, there wasn't much they could do about it. However, now that TV series are being marketed to the public, the completeness of the shows is a major selling point. Ads are telling consumers that the boxed sets have material they can't see on TV, and to the hardcore fans, that's frequently enough reason to buy the sets, at least if it's economically feasible.

Unfortunately for advertisers, it looks like consumers will be able to afford a lot of DVDs. Unlike VHS tapes, which have to be recorded in real time (or something close to it), DVDs are stamped out, much like records and CDs. Already DVD boxed sets of classics like Red Skelton and The Little Rascals are showing up at the $5.00 per hour or less price point. As the demand for DVDs picks up, manufacturing costs will decline even further. Within three years, the DVD market will be flooded with boxed sets of older shows, like Perry Mason or Bonanza, going for under $2.00 per hour. At that price the average consumer, not just hardcore fans, will be buying complete TV series.

Newer TV series are on the way too, at higher prices, but with other selling points. Paramount is well under way marketing the complete original Star Trek TV series on DVD, and with newly re-mastered 5.1 surround sound, no less. It's only a matter of time before they market all of the Star Trek series on DVD, and well before then, their ads may claim the shows are not only complete, but missing network and station IDs as well. This is likely to become a major selling point since ID overlays stand out particularly blatantly against a black background, like space. Rather than blend in with space scenes, network and station ID overlays appear as huge floating billboards in space, sometimes dwarfing the Enterprise and the planets it orbits. Any chance of experiencing the suspension of disbelief required to really enjoy the show is immediately photon torpedoed.

In the long run, the practice of superimposing, or overlaying, network and station IDs may drive more consumers to DVDs than the missing minutes lost to make room for more commercials. As long as a reasonably professional job was done on the editing, a show will still have continuity, and can still be enjoyed. The ID overlays are a different matter. The IDs are a constant visual intrusion into the suspension of disbelief required to experience and enjoy most entertainment, and that, after all, is what advertisers are paying for.

Sometimes the IDs even make it difficult to see the show at all. Some stations in the Silicon Valley area are putting overlays on both sides of the lower screen, especially at the beginning of the program, when they run pyrotechnic promos that completely obscure whatever is happening on a large part of the screen underneath.

Some networks are going even further. When the Discovery Channel recently broadcast the British produced "Walking With Dinosaurs," several times during the broadcast the show's image was compressed upwards, distorting the image noticeably, to make room for a promo at the bottom of the screen. The effect was similar to the way stations are already compressing the ending title credits of shows to make room for promos now.

At a time when commercial television is facing what will likely be the most serious threat of its life, competition from reruns on DVD, it is unfortunate to think that constantly degrading the image of the content they provide is part of their strategy for keeping an audience. To quote a point from Jurassic Park, people in the commercial television industry are using technology long before they ever consider if they "should" use it.

TV stations that overlay IDs and promos over advertiser sponsored content are doing a disservice to both their audience and their advertisers. If they keep it up, they may lose both. The audience has already started opting out. It doesn't make sense for advertisers to continue to support television channels whose programming practices are driving the most affluent consumers to DVDs, a media that doesn't support advertising.

From an advertiser's standpoint, it would be unfortunate to lose the commercial television industry, but not a disaster. Within a few years, nearly any advertiser will be able to sponsor uncut, unaltered, "broadcasts" of movies and other content directly to consumers over the Internet, bypassing commercial broadcasters completely, and just as well. If the commercial broadcast market keeps eroding, advertisers may have to resort to Internet "broadcasting," just to find an audience.






Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

' keywords: Internet advertising, Internet marketing, business, advertising, Internet, marketing. For more advertising and marketing help, news, resources and information visit our Home Page.


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