Buy!There’s something offensive about TV ads. They run roughshod over our viewing and undermine the work of the many people it takes to make a feature film or television feature.

They do not extend the respectful invitation of print ads, designed to succeed on merit and message, but force themselves on us like party gatecrashers. They were the first terrorists of the advertising world…

Looking back, there was something about a well-executed pause edit that made an ad-free VHS recording of a film from television deeply satisfying. The significance of ‘cleaning up’ a recording in this way was largely missed. The VHS-Betamax war could have forewarned of coming conflicts, however – both in formats and beyond – but we were too busy playing with our new toys. And when Max Headroom introduced us to blipverts, we were too busy laughing.

Long before the current round of loudness wars broke out, it was clear that television adverts were not our friends – bringing welcome information to assist our purchasing – but adversaries seeking to inflict their will on us.

With the development of domestic recorded video and online viewing, there has been no shortage of others joining the scrap – DVDs that force you to watch trailers before the main feature, no matter how outdated or aggravating they may become, for example. Rather than being made to feel that my custom is valuable, I increasingly feel abused by an industry that wants my money. It’s rather like meeting a mugger.

This isn’t about the content or creative aspects of advertising, but about their delivery. Unsurprisingly, the ad world is prepared to take issue with my way of thinking.

The customer is always right

Discovering in the mid-80s that the Japanese were able to automatically pause a video recorder during ad breaks made me think that it was just a matter of time before ‘auto ad removal’ would be with us all. Japan’s TV networks didn’t share this view, however.

Hopper and JoeyWith two audio channels at its disposal, Japan’s TV did not dive straight into stereo but provided alternative listening – usually dubs of foreign films and to open domestic programming to visitors. Invariably these dubs did not extend to advertisements, so it was relatively simple to pause a VCR recording when a suitable silence was detected. By all accounts it worked well – until commercial pressure chased it down.

Nearly 30 years on, and I feel I’m watching an American remake of the same drama. This time the legal storm is descending on Dish Network’s use of the ‘ad-skipping’ EchoStar Hopper and Joey set-top TV boxes. With A-List faces taking the place of the original Japanese cast, Fox, NBC and CBS are to sue Dish Network in order to prevent viewers escaping their ad ‘messages’.

Dish operates a Primetime Anywhere service, providing on-demand programming from four major US broadcast networks. Dish unveiled the Hopper recorder in early 2012, but it wasn’t until an ‘auto hop’ feature – that allows viewers to skip over ad breaks in shows they have recorded, rather than eliminating them at source – was added that the spat broke out.

‘We were given no choice but to file a suit against one of our largest distributors, Dish Network, because of their surprising move to market a product with the clear goal of violating copyrights and destroying the fundamental underpinnings of the broadcast television ecosystem,’ a Fox statement said. ‘Their wrongheaded decision requires us to take swift action in order to aggressively defend the future of free, over-the-air television.’

Fox argues that the ability to receive programmes without their accompanying advertisements constitutes re-broadcasting – a copyright violation and breach of their broadcast contract.

Max HeadroomWith around 14m subscribers, Dish Network is the second largest satellite broadcaster in the US and has filed a counter lawsuit to protect its service. Substituting film noir strong-arm tactics for the subtleties of world cinema, the US networks are prepared to spill blood in order to protect their main source of revenue.

Consumers should be able to fairly choose for themselves what they do and do not want to watch,’ argues Dish Senior VP of programming, David Shull. ‘We don’t believe AutoHop will substantially change established consumer behaviour, but we do believe it makes the viewing experience better. We respect the business models that drive our industry, but we also embrace the evolving nature of technology and new ideas.’

Clearly, broadcasting has to be funded, and we presently have two models – a licence fee and advertising. All the large US TV networks depend on revenue from ads, and worldwide spending on TV ads is expected to hit US$200bn (£128bn) by 2017.

If we do not fund all of our broadcasters through a licence, then we have to accept the need for TV commercials. But wouldn’t it be easier to live with advertisements if their audio levels could be kept in line without recourse to legislation?

But legislation seems to be commercial television’s second language.

Dish Networks is not the first company to offer US audiences the ability to skip ads, however. An earlier digital video recorder marketed by ReplayTV saw some of its users seek a legal judgement on their right to rid them selves of ads. Having been purchased by SonicBlue in 2001, ReplayTV was subsequently sold to D&M Holdings (the Japanese owners of Calrec, Allen & Heath, Denon and Snell Acoustics) in 2003, when a copyright infringement suit brought about by US broadcasters pushed SonicBlue to file for bankruptcy.

ReplayTV is now an online service operated by DirecTV – without ad skipping.

To fend off the claims of the networks, Dish has asked a US court to declare that the Hopper DVR does not violate copyright. US media analyst Todd Mitchell (Brean Murray) suggests that introducing the ad hopping is actually a negotiating tactic by Dish, which wants to pay less to air shows from large broadcasters. ‘This is about programming costs,’ he argues. ‘Dish is saying, if you want to charge me up to the wazoo, we will disable commercials. But if you charge us less, we can disable the feature.’

If so, this recasts a welcome consumer feature as another money play, and makes the customer’s viewing preference a casualty. Again.

You can skip this ad in…

YouTubeIn the UK, internet television software applications such as ITV Player retain advertisements in streamed programming – no surprise there. It is not possible to ‘fast-forward’ through these sections of a stream, however, making ads inescapable unless treated as a comfort break.

Launched in 2010, YouTube’s TrueView allows users to skip over ads ‘they aren’t interested in’. This uses a countdown timer to indicate when the remaining section of the ad can be skipped. YouTube claim that ‘advertisers like it because they only pay if the user doesn’t hit the skip button, which means, at least in theory, that the people who do watch their ads are more interested in whatever they’re selling’.

This makes more sense to me than the ‘ad enforcement’ stance of the other approaches.

Other forms of advertising make interesting studies too. Pop-unders, for example. You have to regard an ad that you don’t even know you are ‘viewing’ as being stealthy at best. The ad industry argues that viewers are ‘much more likely to take the time to look at your offer when they don't have another objective on their mind’. Yeah, right.

These lie beyond the scope of this blog, however.

ASAWhat mystifies me is the arrogance of these models of advertising. Rather than the dictionary definition ‘form of communication used to encourage or persuade an audience (viewers, readers or listeners; sometimes a specific group of people) to continue or take some new action’, they have become a form of bullying.

The necessity to legislate in an attempt to control the loudness of advertisements proves it. In spite of persistent denials, TV ads are just too damn loud. And they reflect very badly on the broadcast industry.

A final thought: if advertising standards bodies (like the ASA, as found in the UK and South Africa) seek to ‘ensure that advertising does not mislead, harm or offend’, perhaps their remit should be extended to cover excessive audio levels in TV ads. In this way, advertisers could be called to account by weight of viewers’ compaints and without the need for complicated technical legislation.

As I was drafting this, Calrec’s Community website picked up the Hopper storm, pulling in the decline of the print publishing industry as a possible parallel to what awaits traditional ‘linear’ broadcasting. It’s well worth a read. 

Both Calrec and I would be extremely interested to hear your thoughts – especially if you are involved in television advertising.

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