The Future Of TV Advertising in 1999

‘DIGITAL TV CHOICE’
Tribune 1999

“The fastest generation of technological change since fire.” is how Alan McCulloch of Saatchi & Saatchi described the imminent explosion in digital communications. Richard Eyre’s “communicopia” of choice will be an empowering force for consumers, enabling them to create their own virtual TV channels, with all their favourite viewing stored ready for use whenever needed. With the marriage of delivery systems and content offered by internet convergence, ‘sit back’, one-way TV will end. People will watch what they want to watch.
Increasing numbers of media industry representatives are also predicting that the technology will soon be available to enable viewers to abolish advertising from personal schedules. They also predict that we will not be allowed to use it.
The feasibility of this ‘time-shifting’ technology is not seriously in question: “Within 2 – 3 years, using a ‘Q-Dot’ or similar recognition system.” says Nick Thomas of Bell Pottinger Good Relations (PR to Phillips electronics.)

It is very likely that in 5-7 years advanced TV systems will include time-shifting systems.” says Mike Kroll, principal researcher in multi-media and networking at the BBC’s Bletchley Park-style research unit at Kingswood Warren in Surrey.

However, its implementation is in doubt. Ray Kelly, chair of the media policy group for the Institute for Practitioners in Advertising, injects the first note of caution:
“It should worry advertisers, but they’re not aware of the technology.”
After being made aware, David Sanderson, director of digital sales at Carlton Digital admitted that with enough take-up, ‘time-shifting’ or ‘AdZAp’ systems “could represent a major disaster, with a downward spiral in advertising revenues.” The industry would therefore “lobby very hard to prevent such a thing from happening.” After all, there would be “little justification for the industry to allow a technology which would put them out of business.”
Roy Addison of Pearson was another who didn’t believe it was “in the industry’s interests to alert the public to such a function.” From promises of limitless bounty to threats of product suppression in three easy accounting stages. In the name of free market ‘Individual Choice’ real choice for real individuals will be compromised. So new?
The Adam Smith Institute was also baffled.
That’s quite a ‘Catch 22’” admitted their press office. Adding “The technology is almost killing itself.” The A.S.I. would certainly condemn any industry restrictions on ‘AdZAp’ as a restriction of choice, but still stuck to its principles that:
a) What’s good for industry is good for the people.
b) Industry must be allowed to defend its interests.
To add to this chaos, the argument is also re-emerging that commercials are a sort of public service. As well as being entertaining and pretty, they are also informational and educational. Mmm! Delicious AND Nutritious! “People like advertising” and “The public are too apathetic to bother creating their own schedules” I was repeatedly assured. See that Royle Family? That’s you that is.
Even more insulting, watching TV advertising is almost promoted as a civic duty. Because it promotes consumer spending, TV advertising plays a vital cohesive role in our society. Suppressing its dissemination therefore threatens the general good, and must be opposed. In the Middle Ages we had compulsory church attendance, now we have Pot Noodles.
Another defence is the ‘Right of commercial free speech’ recently cited by the advertising industry in its losing battle with the Swedish decision to ban advertising to kids.
So who would want to upset this delicate socio/economic balance by using an ‘AdZAp’ system? How would any manufacturer find a market for such a thing? By calling Alan McCulloch for a start. “I would certainly like one.” he whispered before urging the industry to adapt in order to survive. “TV advertising has to become more interactive. The agencies are failing to create new forms. Their heads are still stuck up their arses doing TV ads.”
In practice this includes abandoning the linear cinematic commercial for the computer game format. ‘Adgames’ could last as long as the player played, and could offer rewards in the form of bonus points or star prizes. The best ads would be the best games, and the ultimate game would be the one which replaced programming entirely. Which solves the problem of influencing children, but what of discriminating viewers such as Mr. McCulloch, who sees “the clever techniques used to influence children” at first hand and therefore appreciates the “very strong case for restricting children’s advertising.”?
And what of the Consumer Society agnostics? The ones who caused all that fuss in Seattle. How will they be prevented from getting the TV they want?
Amid the confusion two things are absolutely clear. Firstly, future TiVo systems and internet bandwidths will make independence from corporate TV scheduling achievable to those who want it. And secondly: if fire has indeed been rediscovered then we must play with it. The woolly mammoths of the media industry would rather we stayed shivering in our caves, but this is just as unlikely now as it was the first time around.
In future the media industry will have to cater for an audience which increasingly knows what it wants, and which has the technology to get it. Java based Software plug-ins such as AdZap will be available (probably free) via the internet, downloading them to your home terminal will be the work of a few minutes, and once there they will work invisibly to remove advertising, or any other definable content. And let’s face it, who would miss it? Then who would pay for it? And how would the companies which depend on it survive? Survival for the BBC seems a simple matter of charging the world to see its back catalogue on the internet, and abolishing the licence fee. But for commercial TV, the future is more problematic.
It would seem that the industry is faced with as many threats as opportunities. It will also have to deal on level terms with human emotions which until now it has merely exploited. Consumers will be aware of the power at their disposal, and very aware of when it is denied them.
In this new buyer’s market for tv, suckers will become clients, with corresponding expectations of service. The one-way, intrusive TV commercial – cheeky monkeys, supermodels, soap-opera plots and all – looks doomed in a market which doesn’t want its’ films interrupted every twenty minutes by images of supermodels in flourescent underwear. The difficulty is that the evangelists of the free market, those who think the BBC is ‘pure socialism’, may find the consequences of a genuinely free market in TV too much to allow. Amid the blur of the digital revolution, some things never change. If Tony Blair wants to ‘root out reactonary elements’, he should look no further than his new friends in the media industry.
•••

Addendum. 23/10/08
‘Will Ad-Skipping Kill Television?’ (broken)

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