Thwarting DVRs

DVRs (digital video recorders) give advertisers and broadcasters fits. These wondrous devices allow viewers to quickly skip over commercials, compressing an hour-long show to under 50 minutes and avoiding all those annoying ads. But wait—those ads are what pay for the program itself, so if few people watched them, they'd lose their value, and the programs would dwindle and finally disappear.

So say the advertisers and content producers. Jamie Kellner, chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting from 2001 to 2003, went even further when he famously said in an interview that skipping commercials with a DVR was morally equivalent to theft. As he put it, "Your contract with the network when you get the show is you're going to watch the spots. Otherwise you couldn't get the show on an ad-supported basis. Any time you skip a're actually stealing the programming."

I can see his point—without commercials, there would be no "free" TV. On the other hand, TV isn't free for most of us who pay cable and satellite bills every month. The only people who really get their TV for free are those who watch solely from an over-the-air antenna, and most probably don't have a DVR.

To be completely fair, cable and satellite fees don't come close to paying for new TV programming. The content and production are paid for by advertising—just as they are on UAV and all other commercial websites.

Of course, no one is going to be prosecuted for "stealing" TV programming by skipping commercials. Instead, broadcasters are looking for new ways to put products in front of us. The most obvious trend in this regard is so-called "product placement," in which products like Coke or Dell computers are prominently used in the main program.

A new trick I recently discovered is both intriguing and irritating. Two political shows on MSNBC—Countdown with Keith Olbermann and The Rachel Maddow Show—bring the hosts back in the middle of a commercial break for a moment or two—Keith takes a few seconds to re-announce upcoming stories, while Rachel goes further and inserts short segments of actual content. The result? As the commercials are whizzing past, I see the host for a split-second, causing me to stop and back up. In the process, I end up seeing more of the commercials, which is undoubtedly the goal.

Don't get me wrong—I think the DVR is one of the greatest inventions in all of consumer electronics. And I certainly want to be able to easily skip the commercials. But I can't help thinking that if advertising lost most of its value, broadcast content would become very expensive.

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keith's picture

It wouldn't be a problem if there were soooo many commercials. It's a fine balance. My DVR skips forward in 30 second increments, so I've found that I hit it 8 times on average to get through the break. That's almost 15 minutes every hour.

Fred M.'s picture

Scott, I see what you're doing wrong. With the Olbermann show, you're supposed to watch the commercials and skip past the program. Such as it is.

The Flap's picture

I find the ads refreshing durring Olbermann's show really it is the most believeable portion of the show. The implementation you mention is the broadcaster not paying attention to the consumer. Fewer adds are what is wanted, shown with either fastforwarding with a DVR or some just muting the shows and waiting. The consumers point is valid, one to three commercials are going to work better than 5-7 that are now the norm. GE is in trouble and the reason they don't listen to the consumer. We can just wait for them to go away and another to take its place.

Fred M.'s picture

At the risk of being serious for a moment, the TV show "Fringe" which debuted in Sep tember uses a single commercial spot at each break, usually 60 seconds or 90 seconds, and they tell you during the fade that "Fringe will be back in 60 seconds." In addition, the advertiser during the pilot at least, was a single truck manufacturer and the spot ran at each break. They have introduced longer spots now, near the end of the show, but the concept is original and might intrigue viewers enough to watch a commercial served up in such short fashion. (continued)

Fred M.'s picture

And regarding Jamie Kellner, chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting equating skipping past commercials as theft, I would instead analogize the practice to law enforcements' practice of getting information without a warrant: Once the trash is on the sidewalk, it no longer belongs to you.

Norm's picture

How about a new type of Tivo that skips any show on MSNBC. I liken your question to the old days of PC vs. Apple, in that the PC's open architecture allowed other companies to make a better product, whereas Apple closed the door; and wouldn't have survived without their iPod. "Other" companies will figure out a way to get their message across, and we'll end up with hundreds of free channels with nothing to watch.

John in Missouri's picture

The way I see it, if you are watching a show as it is being broadcast you have no choice but to watch the commercials. At least let them play in real time whether or not you watch them. The DVR is used to record shows on another channel at the same time or watch it while you are away from a TV. In other words, without the DVR, you would not even be watching some shows. Does anyone else remember the days before the VCR? How many shows were missed in their entirety because you couldn't record them for viewing at a later time? At least commercials on recorded shows have a chance of being seen as opposed to shows not recorded with no chance of being seen.

Jim's picture

That guy from Turner is an idiot. I signed no contract saying I would watch commercials. Before the days of my first DVR, I was already avoiding commercials. For example, If I was watching Fox News (staying on the news channel theme), and they went to a commercial, I would flip over to CNN, or MSNBC. If they all happened to be showing commercials at the same time, I would probably go to the fridge, and grab something cold to drink. I didn't watch commercials. I think that some of the advertisers are crazy. Once their product is known, they can quit advertising. Do they really think I am going to switch from Coke to Pepsi because I liked their commercial? I have already tried both products, and I know which I am going to buy. Any American has no choice but to try both at some point, due to the fact many places carry one or the other on tap. As such, there is no need to advertise it. I would rather pay directly for the few shows I watch. I never buy things I see on TV ads (which I try to avoid at all

Peter Headland's picture

Between PBS and the shows we get on DVD (because we like to see 100% of the shows, not what's left after the networks hack random chunks out to make room for more commercials and trailers), we watch very little TV that is funded by advertising these days. Since we watch everything time-delayed via TiVo, we skip most commercials. However, we actually back up and watch those commercials that we like (such as the Geico caveman series). So, the solution is clear for advertisers - quit whining and make entertaining commercials that people enjoy watching. Added bonus - if we enjoy your commercials we will be more likely to buy your stuff (well, OK, I meant "buy your stuff once the current economic crisis is over").

BDH's picture

So this isn't anything new. I have two VCR's in my house and they both fast forward through commercials beautifully.

Kraig Bailey's picture

My DirecTV HD DVR doesn't skip-it fast forwards. So I still "see" all the ads. If something catches my interest I go back and watch the ad. And I always play the Victoria's Secret spots! ;-)

SL Sutherland's picture

Being One that enjoys Olbermann and not the commercials, if your talking antenna reception fine deal with the commercials but with Cable TV or FIOS or Satallite the TV viewer is Paying for that service!! commercials be gone if one so chooses .. you pay for. now if they want to make the cable/fios feed free then sign me up i'll watch the show's commercials.. Special Comment @ 8:00 pm

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