Saturday, March 31, 2007

Do TV Execs Really Understand? We'll Tell You After This Commercial Break

On the same day earlier this week, two media behemoths announced their thoughts as to how the changing face of content delivery should be handled.

First came ABC. While speaking before an audience of advertising agency representatives and media buyers, ABC Television Executive Mike Shaw took it upon himself to become another lightning rod for out of touch old-media philosophy. Rather than devising feasible solutions for what is a completely different communicative world, Shaw spent his time finger-pointing at DVR technology and encouraging his audience to help work to stop the ad-skipping and time-shifting capability of these devices embraced by millions of television viewers.

Shaw’s stance is beyond ludicrous—it is a waste of breath. Rather than burning energy lamenting that what is past is gone, those who succeed listen, observe, and find ways to leverage changes and advances to create new opportunities that are mutually beneficial.

Case in point. Later in the week, NBC Universal (Universal Pictures, NBC Television, MSN, AOL, Yahoo, etc.) and News Corp. (owner of MySpace and Fox Television) made a very different announcement. They have partnered together to create what they hope is an advertiser-friendly web presence that allows visitors to view their programs online. Many are calling this a YouTube killer, but that description is only accurate in that they both house staggering supplies of online video content. YouTube is designed for user-created content, while this new offering will focus on the same material currently available on the participating television network’s prime time schedules.

The NBC Universal/News Corp plan not only creates new advertising inventory, it gives the content consumer the entertainment they want, when they want it, on whatever screen they’d like. Since it’s streaming, ads will be inserted in the programming. Eventually, these ads could easily be served based upon the viewer’s opt-in choices for what advertising they’d like to see.

First of all, the initial idea and structure here seems solid, but only if they choose to evolve rather than recreate. It gives the consumer the platform they have been asking for—the access to the shows they want whenever they want to watch them. However, the idea is still an interruptive approach and little more than a new spin on the same old ad model. At least they’re trying. Sort of.

Television networks really don’t have a choice. Their responsibility and sole purpose is simply to deliver an audience to the advertisers. The shows they choose, the news they cover, the sports contracts they sign—the only real reason is to put eyeballs in front of ads. So, as more and more advertisers shift dollars away from dwindling television audiences and towards the web, the networks have little choice but to change.

There’s room for a couple of interesting advancements here.

First, they could continue their partnership with Apple to offer the commercial-free versions of programs for sale via iTunes (AppleTV could supplant DVR if they are involved in the streaming of the free versions (with commercials) as well) to those viewers who choose to view the shows commercial-free. It’s direct-purchase television. Watch a great episode of 30 Rock and then choose to download it advertising-free for $1 or $2. If I liked it enough to want to watch at my leisure, it's well worth the cash to keep the episode on hand.

Second, the audience could drive more creative advertising strategies. There are so many better ways to attract and engage an audience around your product than by interrupting the story their being told. My hope is that this new online destination isn’t setting out to simply deliver 30-second television commercials to computer screens. Use those budgets instead to innovate. There is so much more possibility than just rehashing the same old ads. Foster interaction. Allow participation. Encourage opinions.

Time will tell if either of these announcements are really saying the same thing or if they are just different attempts to hold on to the way things have always been. My money is on more of the same.

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