Almost everyone has heard of Pavlov's dogs. Ivan Pavlov would ring a bell, then show his dogs a bowl of food, which caused them to salivate. Slowly, the dogs associated the food with the bell. Eventually the connection became so ingrained in the dogs that Pavlov only needed to ring the bell to cause them to salivate. They became conditioned to automatically respond. I can think of no better analogy for modern television viewing habits.
Consumers have adopted a Pavlovian response to the words, "We'll be right back." Except rather than salivating, they change the channel. I speak as both an advertiser and a consumer. From years of training, I have developed the uncanny ability to view other channels for exactly the length of a commercial break. Superman might be able to fly, but I can channel surf like nobody's business. It's not foolproof, though: Since the networks run ad breaks at roughly the same time, this practice often exposes me to more ads. And sometimes I forget to return to the original channel, anyway.
TV networks have been smart about getting their own messages across: They hog the A positions for themselves by redefining it. Technically speaking, the commercial break starts as soon as the program ends, making the first ad spot the A position. However, the networks keep that position to tease their own programs and sell the next unit as the A position (at a premium, of course). But the B position by any other name smells just as rotten. Teasing their own programs is great for the networks, but bad for advertisers. These previews tell the audience that commercials are on the way, and it's okay for them to stop paying attention. TiVo users love this because it gives them a jump-start on the fast-forward button.
To add insult to injury, the networks keep expanding the length of their ad breaks, letting commercial clutter choke the life out of television. Primetime shows now have more than 15 minutes an hour of non-program time. The average in 1991 was 10 minutes. No wonder viewers expect long, boring commercial breaks. We have successfully trained them to associate commercials with boredom. Even worse, because cable re-airs so much of network programming, these lengthy ad breaks bleed into the cable universe.
It's true: The TV industry has been unrelentingly bad to the end consumer, offering insipid programs coupled with endless commercial breaks. The dogs salivate; we switch channels.
Yet the future could see a change, starting online. Viewers still want free video, and to get it, they will sit through short commercial breaks. The operative word, of course, is "short."
Consumers respond positively to pre-roll video. They understand that in exchange for a short ad, they get the content of their choice. Consumers accept this social contract because they are in control. They know that they are only committing to a short period of time. As long as the advertiser respects this, so too will the viewer. Given my druthers, I would choose mid-roll commercials over pre-roll. I believe that an engaged consumer will pay more attention to my product. However, I would take pre-roll any day over five minutes of ad clutter.
As TV viewing slowly shifts to the Web, will Internet portals begin to show multiple ads in a row? That may sound crazy, but so did the same concept on television 50 years ago. Perhaps consumers would accept two pre-roll ads in a row. Maybe that would work for long-form programming. Since the majority of viewing is for short clips, that doesn't seem to be an option in the foreseeable future. But as long as we get consumers to stop salivating (i.e. switching channels), I am ready and willing to experiment.
Can the networks reverse course? It depends partly on advertisers and the agencies who love them. Will Madison Avenue pay more for less clutter? So far the answer has been "no," in capital letters. Large media agencies buy in bulk with more regard for quantity than quality. They are judged on low CPMs and beating the market (which they set, by the way). As TV ratings continue to plummet, perhaps they will reassess the way they buy TV, but I doubt it. Once the agencies are willing to double (or even triple) their CPMs to guarantee a less cluttered environment, then we will see change. Stay tuned for more updates. We'll be right back after these messages. Ding.
Andrew Ettinger in the director of interactive media at RJ Palmer Media Services. (email@example.com)