Commentary

Chicken Little to Advertisers, "PVRs are Making the Sky Fall!"

I've got 3 letters to give you in response to the ongoing fear-mongering which analysts and PVR purveyors promote: VCR.

Remember when this device first made its way into our homes? The same sets of fears were expressed. Oodles of time and energy were spent on wringing hands over what was going to happen to television advertising when households all over the world would be able to record, and then skip, commercials. Nielsen even set up a division to track programming watched via VCR. The fall-out?

Advertisers pay more now for the: 30 spot than at any time in history. And though most households now have VCRs, a majority of them now sit on televisions, occasionally used for recording programming, 12:00AM flashing in green-colored LCD on the front of the machine.

Why did the threat never materialize? Is it because the VCR was inadequate to its promise? Did a sudden fondness for television commercials emerge? No. Human behavior, as it always does, prevailed. And what is it that is responsible for both motivating human behavior and repressing it? Fear and laziness. Fear of technology and laziness to do anything about it is why that clock on the VCR still doesn't read the correct time, why browser start pages are still set at the default, and why even most people's cell phone ringers are still whatever the first tones were that had been set when the user walked out of the retailer.

How could a community of purported experts in the use of media have been so wrong? How could manifest reality be so far removed from professional prognostications? The reason is because when a small community in an enclosed space talks to itself over and over again in louder and louder voices, the reverberant echoes become so unbearable that they confuse those speaking and cloud their thoughts.

None of the people worrying out loud today about the "threat" of the PVR seem to be keeping an eye on the most important thing about media usage: human behavior. The human being's relationship with their television is not one of an ad skipping nature. People aren't watching television hours on end, all the while wishing they could skip the commercials. The average US citizen spends their life between the anxieties and pressures of daily goings-on - work, children, school, bureaucracy, and simple acts of "being Modern" - and the passive boredom of fatigued leisure.

People watch television in order to have a facile engagement with content they like. Commercial interruptions, though oft-times annoying, have become part of that engagement. They are natural breaks that the human animal has come to not only expect but to rely on. Being able to record programming and skip ads with ease is certainly attractive, but it is unrealistic to believe that everyone who ends up with a PVR in their house has it for the sole purpose of ad skipping. The average media user simply does not watch television the way the Chicken Littles of the industry currently anticipate.

Do studies show that current PVR households skip vast quantities of ads? Sure. Are current PVR households actual vectors of "time shifting" within the television-watching time-space continuum? Certainly. Are PVR households representative of the rest of the human race and indicative of a trend? Highly unlikely. Saying that current PVR households are ad skipping time-shifters and they set the pace for the rest of the world is like saying that astronomers who have telescopes in their house do more star-gazing and so therefore star-gazing is going to be the next big thing.

Current PVR households are upscale early adopters and gadget-heads; hardly indicative of the typical consumer of television in this country. When the research wonks have representative samples of people like my sister, who is a working mom with a high-school education and 3 kids, THEN we will be on to a trend that major media outlets, agencies, and marketers should be concerned about.

The real attraction of the PVR is what it allows us to learn so much more about television viewing habits of users who aren't necessarily active program recorders and ad-skippers. The technology exists for these boxes (as it does for digital cable boxes) to record what programming is being watched at precisely what time by how many people. It is a much better way to determine audience types and levels for programming than the 5,000-member Nielsen sample, in spite of the possibility that PVR households have yet to make up a group that is demographically representative of the universe at large. Once PVRs are in cable set-top boxes and the like, we're looking at a much larger user base whose absolute numbers have the potential for rendering Nielsen's figures obsolete. The only reason we don't hear more about it now is that a new possibility for better research going up against Nielsen is like a private diamond miner in South Africa going up against the Oppenheimer family: they will kill you and dump your body down the mineshaft.

And lest we forget, the networks, which pay more for Nielsen than agencies do, benefit most from the system being the way it is. For them, PVRs are a double-threat: the ability to skip ads (however much this may take place) and the possibility of revealing just who their audiences might actually be.

As I mention above, when it comes to human behavior, there are two things that one can always count on to be the primary factors in one's taking action or not: fear and laziness. Both of those are significant challenges to changing existing patterns of behavior.

When all is said and done, the PVR is a fancy digital VCR. Eventually, many households will have them. And their use will challenge media companies, marketers, and agencies to be creative and try new things. But they are not the death knell for the: 30 spot and advertising as we know it. Are PVRs a transformative force? Yes. A revolutionary force? No.

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