First Time, Now Space, TV Encounters 'Place-Shifting'

Every year at about this time, the TV networks begin hosting a series of events for advertisers and agencies, ranging from intimate gatherings in the major media outposts to star-studded extravaganzas at New York's most famous concert halls. In all, there will be about four dozen major TV network events competing for Madison Avenue's attention.

But one of the hottest upfront tickets last year wasn't for an event in New York, Los Angeles, or any of the other big media meccas. It was an upfront sales presentation that took place in September in Bentonville, Ark., home of retail giant Wal-Mart, which hosts an annual upfront presentation for its namesake Wal-Mart Network.

That advertisers and agencies would line up to hear a media pitch from a retailer, which itself is an advertiser, is interesting. But the fact is that the people trekking to Bentonville aren't the in-store media advertisers of old. They are the kind of people who plan, buy, and create advertising for television.

If you want to understand how media is going nonlinear, the best place to start might be in, well, places. Places like Wal-Mart. Places like airport terminals, where business travelers are glued to CNN's Airport Network. Places like Regal Cinemas, where moviegoers have no choice but to watch ads prior to films. And even places like high-rise elevator cars, where office workers gaze at the flat-screen monitors of Captivate's elevator network.

"We've always had place-based media," says Jim Spaeth, whose Sequent Partners is helping marketers like Procter & Gamble crack the new place-based code. "What's different now is that we've got sight, sound, and motion. We've got the most powerful communications vehicles in the most relevant locations." He's talking about TV, of course -- more specifically, the ability to deliver TV commercials to businesspeople and consumers at a time and in a place where they are most prone to be receptive to certain messages.

That's right, TV has entered the final frontier: space. In much the way handheld devices such as Apple's iPod have freed TV programming and advertising from the physical restrains of TV sets, place-based media are bringing them into what may be some of the most relevant spaces. "We've coined the term 'shopper media,'" Spaeth says, noting that it isn't just TV that's invading the supermarket aisles, but also radio and other nonlinear media: digital screens that are Internet-connected, Bluetooth-enabled, and capable of knowing who is in front of them and what they might be interested in at that very moment.

Sounds a bit like a description from one of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick's amazingly prophetic novels, doesn't it? Maybe. But the future is definitely here. It's a far cry from the old world of retail media, known for point-of-purchase display cards, hang tags, and end-aisle displays.

This is not the first time Madison Avenue has been pitched by so-called place-based media networks. In fact, they were wildly popular in the 1990s, when big players ranging from NBC, Turner Broadcasting, and even McDonald's tried and failed to launch a new generation of shopper TV. NBC On-Site failed to get beyond the test stage. Turner's Check-Out Channel folded when supermarket cashiers kept pulling the plug or turning down the volume. Turner also tried and failed to launch a McDonald's Channel. In fact, the only place-based media network launched by a major during that period that is still around is CNN's Airport Network.

So what's different now? Two things, says Sequent's Spaeth. One is that the technology has improved, and it is now far easier and more economical to distribute video content to almost any place at nearly any time. "What advertisers are looking for right now is the ability to engage consumers. They know that because of technological changes -- the remote control, TiVo, etc. -- and attitudinal changes, there's a lot of resistance to traditional advertising, and one of the strongest drivers of engagement is relevance," Spaeth says. "In the old days, that meant putting the food ad next to recipe copy in Good Housekeeping. The modern version is to put your message in front of the consumer when they're in the salty snack aisle trying to decide what kind of chips they want to take home."

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