Commentary

Ad Tapping Versus Ad Zapping: What Does TiVo Know?

The great ad zapper is taking steps to become the ultimate ad tapper. As expected, TiVo has unveiled an array of new features it says will reposition it from an advertising avoidance technology to one that enhances the TV advertising experience, making it more interactive, more relevantly targeted, and giving it direct response features that will make TV ads more akin to online ads. It will also make it more difficult for TiVo subscribers to avoid an advertiser's message. And that may ultimately be the bad news for viewers, advertisers, and especially for TiVo.

TiVo owes most of its success to the fact that it has given consumers control over media at a time when they desperately need to manage the torrent of clutter spilling their way. Life in general, and media life in particular, have simply grown way too complicated and compressed to consume things the way we did when the TV advertising model originally emerged. Life has changed; the model has not. And that's why it's beginning to fray at the edges. And why, some say, it is poised to completely unravel.

And if you buy into that storyline, TiVo has been cast as the main antagonist, the Snidely Whiplash of the TV advertising marketplace, if you will, for giving consumers precisely what they want, and perhaps more importantly, exactly what they need if they're going to continue watching TV into the future. What TiVo has ultimately proven in nearly a decade of existence is that people like to watch TV, hence a newsletter dubbed TV Watch. More importantly, they watch more TV when they get a device like TV that enables them to watch what they want, when they want, and at the speed they want.

Now TiVo, with some pressure from the biggest national advertisers, wants to put some speed-bumps into that process. Most of us call them commercials. Call them what you will, they're interruptions. And interruptions ultimately are what people don't like about advertising. Advertising is great when people are in the mindset to consume it. They'll seek out information about brands when they're in the market to buy one, or when they're thinking about getting in the market to buy one. They'll even engage irrelevant advertising when they find it entertaining, going so far as to pause, rewind, and even repeat ads that catch their interest.

Those are the precepts of the new non-interruptive TV advertising model that agencies like Red Ball Tiger are trying to develop, and who has been working with players like TiVo to enable.

It all comes down to whether a media platform is designed to "circumvent or cultivate viewer control," says Red Ball Founder Greg Wilson, adding, "In general, attempting to take the viewer from the linear to the nonlinear platform for a long-form message will prove ineffective in the long run as advertising in the linear platform can only be interruptive in nature. People don't dislike advertising. What they dislike is the way that advertising is marketed to them - i.e. the intrusive nature of linear advertising."

By "nonlinear platform," Wilson is referring to TiVo and other digital media technologies that enable consumers to make their media malleable, and allow them to mold it into their lives. Wilson believes consumers will reject the media if they don't do that, and move on to the media that do. That's a bad thing for advertisers associated with that medium, of course, so TiVo may be edging towards a slippery slope with its new advertising enhancements.

I have no doubt that a great deal of research went into the latest developments. And I think it's no surprise that version 2.0 of TiVo ad capabilities are coming under the watchful eye of new TiVo Chief Tom Rogers. Rogers is a really savvy advertising guy. He proved that at NBC. He was close to proving that at Primedia before market forces and big investors swept it out from under him. And he's been proving it in behind-the-scenes work as an advisor to some of the biggest media players ever since, including TiVo. It's no surprise that Rogers was chosen to run - make that reinvent - TiVo. And it's no surprise that he's reworking its advertising engineering as part of that process.

The only surprise may be how TiVo users react to it. Are they so wedded to the brand, and oblivious to the inner workings of digital media content control that they may not notice? Or, will they be induced by the bounty of competing DVR and newer digital media content management systems like Microsoft's Windows Media Center to make the switch? And an even bigger question may be how long it takes for other digital media technology providers to mimic TiVo's move.

Meanwhile, we're waiting for the smoke to clear to find out exactly what TiVo's new ad features mean, how they work, and how consumers will embrace them. One of them seems destined to become a new ad irritant, embedding so-called ID tags on a screen when TiVo users are trying to fast-forward through commercial breaks. The upside is that consumers may be able to identify a sponsor whose message they want to see, and will click on it to see more. This is risky, suggested the Associated Press in its coverage of TiVo's announcement: "Encouraging TiVo customers to download ads could be a tough sell, analysts have predicted. People subscribe to TiVo's service, which allows customers to make video recordings of their favorite TV shows, precisely to avoid commercials."

Or, as Motley Fool scribe Alyce Lomax put it, "Most people find commercials an irritating waste of time, and TiVo's greatest innovation has been empowering users to skip past those ads. If the new ads are executed well, customers could be pleased to only view pitches for products that truly interest them. However, if the new technology begins to feel intrusive or nosy, TiVo might lose one of its major selling points -- a blow it can't afford, especially at this point in the game."

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