Fast-Forward No More?

The announcement today that Disney has done a deal with Cox to disable the fast-forward function on ABC and ESPN programs on the MSO's VOD service for shows such as "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy," "Lost" and others is interesting, to say the least.

It's long been argued -- especially by those on the sales side -- that the principal driver of DVR use is the convenience of being able to watch one's shows of choice on one's own schedule. and that fast-forwarding the ads is very much a secondary motivation. Others may take a different view, but the power of the convenience argument can't credibly be denied (previous responses to DVR-related articles posted by my TV Board colleagues and I consistently bear this out).

However, this VOD-based test between Disney and Cox will be keenly watched for its obvious implications for DVR use and penetration. In many ways it seems to be a preparatory step to an all-out declaration of war against a well-documented pattern of consumer behavior and preference that often appears almost addictive. If deemed successful, it is hard to imagine it won't be replicated beyond VOD and into the DVR space.



This of course raises a compelling question. If those who have established a pattern of DVR use that includes fast-forwarding through ads suddenly find they can no longer exercise what they have come to feel is part of what they pay for on a monthly basis, how will they react? Will resentment stop short of sending the box back so that whatever solution is defined for how DVR-delayed viewing is valued remains intact, or will large numbers return the box, effectively killing the whole question?

There can seemingly be no doubt that those who have become used to fast-forwarding through ads will feel aggrieved, but addressing this issue head-on before penetration of DVRs gets much higher may be the only practical way to put Pandora back into the box.

But if we disable the fast-forward function, how many users will find a way of accessing the content without the ads? On the TV Board a couple of months ago I asked how much money people would want to give up their DVR for two weeks. Some responses suggested the money wouldn't matter, as so much material is now available on the Web (where of course there is less advertising, and the CPMs are lower). How many people would ultimately pursue such a course of action if deprived of their ability to fast-forward is anybody's guess, but with services like AppleTV available, with Joost on the horizon and with the upswing in online video distribution from the networks, options continue to proliferate.

The Disney / Cox initiative could be defined as a brave and bold response to a difficult and growing challenge -- or an act of desperation that will ultimately fall victim to consumer dissatisfaction, based on the mistaken belief that it is possible to disempower the newly empowered (a bit like denying women the vote only a few years after it had been gained). Ultimately, it may be both of these things; for advertisers and media owners alike, the issue is a major one and likely to get bigger.

Even potentially unpopular experiments can be successful --and I, for one. would give my eyeteeth to know exactly how this one turns out. The real answers will only partly be revealed through the numbers of viewers, of course. Some meaningful consumer insights will be needed to get under the skin of the emotional side of the reactions and the likely impact on the DVR market.

I've seen people thank God for DVRs as they fast-forward through the ads. I've even seen them complain about the number of ad breaks that they "have to" fast-forward through, so there is no doubt that emotions would indeed run high.

But in the absence of any such insight from this or any other test, why don't you DVR lovers out there tell us how you'd feel if this test was successful and you ended up losing the fast-forward function on your DVR. How would it impact your viewing? Could you actually go back to the old days?

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