Content burglars

Networks have been worrying for years that increased use of DVRs is going to destroy their ad-supported business model. Well, technically they’ve been worrying for decades, since they were already really worried when the VCR came along. But this season, they seem particularly worried, because ratings are down almost everywhere, while DVR use is up – and there are a number of shows that might be considered hits if DVR use counted more strongly in the ratings. Brian Lowry’s article in Variety sums up some of the things networks are worried about. The people advertisers most want to reach are the ones with lots of disposable income and lots of facility with computer technology – exactly the people who are least likely to be watching the shows live or watching the ads when they do. Sort of like the people who made “I can’t program my VCR” jokes might not have been the target demographic for the ads they were watching.

There may be nothing much that can be done about this. Lowry speculates that maybe networks need to encourage us to watch the ads, but that’s not going to work. Campaigns to get people to stop watching illegally don’t even work, so why would people pay attention to the idea that we owe it to a legally-recorded TV show to stop and watch the commercials? It would come off like this tongue-in-cheek Simpsons segment from the episode where Marge gets addicted to the DVR – and doesn’t it seem like it was a long time ago that Keith Olbermann had a show?

One thing that may be an outgrowth of the networks’ DVR panic is the search for more “event” programs, things that would make people want to be in front of the TV right now instead of later. This includes Fox buying a pitch for a sitcom to be broadcast live – though I wouldn’t bet on that one actually being picked up – and a number of pitches for big miniseries in the style of the ’70s prime-time events. Executives were also hoping that Twitter discussion would boost live viewing, since you have to be in front of the TV to live-tweet a show, but it turns out (yet again) that Twitter is not a representative sample of TV viewers, and the number of people talking about a show on Twitter is dwarfed by the number of people recording a show so they can watch it at their convenience.

I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more talk of taking a page from old-time radio and simply integrating the commercials into the show, creating a 30-minute program complete with commercials, rather than a 21-minute program with breaks. It could be the old Fibber McGee and Molly trick of having an announcer as a character showing up to plug the sponsor’s product, or it could just be that the characters turn on a TV inside the show and watch a commercial. Or just something like the transitions to the Goon Show musical sequences, where the characters stop what they’re doing and announce what will happen during the next three minutes. There are all kinds of ways to do it, but the trick would be not to have any breaks within the show, and therefore make it harder to skip over the ads. I can see all sorts of reasons why this wouldn’t work – less ad time, less control for the advertisers over how their product is sold – but the system of blacking out the show and sticking in a commercial break isn’t really working any more. In many ways, it hasn’t worked since the ’80s, but it takes networks a long time to realize these things.