DVRs, Magna's Brian Wieser said in his understated fashion, will officially cross the 50% penetration level at year-end 2016, up from his previous estimate of 49%. But the significance of that milestone now seems more of a whimper than a bang, and certainly not the sonic "boom" many on Madison Avenue had feared a decade ago when Michael Lewis' cover story on the New York Times Magazine announced that the end of TV advertising was near. Not nearly, as it turns out.
Ten years after Lewis' "Boom Box" article captured Madison Avenue's attention that DVRs - and especially their ability to fast-forward through TV commercials - were about to change everything, some things have certainly changed. Others have not. Advertisers, for example, still spend more on the medium than ever before, and its share of total ad spending continues to climb, both in the U.S. and worldwide. If anything, the recent global economic recession - and Madison Avenue's own economic rollback - have proven the vitality of television, which increased share as marketers cutback on total advertising and consolidated spending on media they believed would generate immediate returns: TV and digital media, including the next generation of TV, online video.
"The worst news is that no one watches commercials anymore," Lewis proclaimed in "Boom Box," citing early research that "eighty-eight percent -- 88 percent! -- of the advertisements in the programs seen by viewers on their black boxes went unwatched, and issuing an understatement that became a new rallying cry for Madison Avenue, and the television networks for the next decade: "If no one watches commercials, then there is no commercial television."
The Lewis piece was important, and most likely prophetic for a number of reasons beyond this prediction, which certainly has not come true. In it, he accurately predicted the shift toward more consumer control, as well as better ad targeting, but also discussed the "black box," as he called DVRs in the context of an ongoing progression of technologies (including the Internet, and more powerful computing), that were shifting electronic media from linear to non-linear experiences, including things like time-shifting, augmented memory, and the ability to access content on-demand, anytime, anywhere.
Lewis did not address the stickier business issues like copyrights or payment models, and he probably underestimated some important cultural factors -- especially how Madison Avenue makes and controls media markets, and how and whether those markets are economically sound for advertising agencies, advertisers and media suppliers who can influence their outcomes.
But the reality is that things have changed. DVRs will soon be in half of television homes, but by the time that finally occurs, other equally significant shifts will have already happened in the media industry's ecosystem that may make Lewis' "Boom Box" seem like a bust by comparison.
But for now, the bottom line is that TV advertising still works, and TV advertising spending continues to grow. It is growing because consumers are watching more TV than ever before, despite all the time they're spending doing everything else, according to Nielsen, anyway.
That's probably for a number of reasons. One is that a significant number of people didn't watch TV commercials before the advent of DVRs. They did it the old-fashioned way, of course, and simply ignored them, got up and walked out of the room, or turned the channel. It's hard to know what the actual percentage was in the pre-DVR days, but it could well have been 88% back then too.
The real culprit to TV's declining economies of scale is not DVRs, or more consumer control. It is more consumer options. People simply have more options to turn their attention to than TV programming and advertising, and that is most likely impacting. It's also a significant factor within television itself, where the number of channel options has exploded, fragmenting consumer choice and viewing. Yes, TV usage levels may be as high as ever, according to Nielsen, but the average usage of any particular TV program - what people in the business call ratings and shares - has gone down dramatically, changing the economics of buying TV, and making it a less efficient medium than it was in its most golden days.
TV still works, of course. And there is an ample body of marketing mix modeling research to prove it. It may not work as well as it used to, and it may be more expensive to do things like build reach or influence consumers, but no other medium has come up with anything that approaches its unique scalability. Online search is great, but it cannot scale like TV. Social media? Well, that's another story that's still playing out. For now, TV is still king, even in a land where one out of every two serfs are surfing past the commercials. But let's revisit this story in another ten years, and see where we are at.