Ad Searching With TiVo

I first wrote about TiVo in 2001. I was caught up in what felt like a fresh resurgence of interactive TV buzz. I thought DVRs (define) would be the killer app to usher in the next generation of TV.

A lot’s changed in the last four years. TiVo’s subscriber growth has been much slower than expected. I’ve become less of a TiVo zealot and more a DVR believer, having switched platforms after some bad customer service experiences. More and more pieces of our lives have gone digital, perhaps led by music and a pair of little, white earbuds. To the consumer, this change is about convenience, customization, and control. DVRs let us watch what we want, when we want. They enable us to fast-forward through ads. The iPod offers anytime, anywhere access to our music libraries and is now capable of doing the same for video. The iTunes Music Store changed the paradigm of music distribution for millions of users and has opened eyes to the potential impact beyond music.

Amid this rapidly evolving digital lifestyle, TiVo changed, too. The company recently made two interesting announcements: It’s going to enable download of content to iPods, and it’s working with partners to create searchable advertising. These moves may or may not save the troubled company; either way, the latter is a fascinating shift. TiVo has been touted as the company that made its name by pushing us to skip ads, although I believe it was ReplayTV that really hung its marketing hat on this capability. TiVo tried much harder early on to be network- and advertiser-friendly. Still, to enable ad search functionality and expect users to embrace it is somewhat of a reversal.

I spent time over the last week or so browsing various discussion boards. The reaction among TiVo users is definitely mixed. Many are appalled. They fear what the actual implementation could mean for what they’re addicted to. TiVo itself admits to not having all the economics worked out, enough to scare users. Some users understand the potential and are will to accept the tradeoff.

What I find interesting is the definition of a TV commercial is changing. It’s no surprise to anyone in the ad industry. I think we’ve all evolved our own definitions of commercials (and advertising in general). But I kept reading on these posts people don’t want to watch commercials.

What is a commercial, really? It’s basically video content. It may come from an advertiser, and, in its current incarnation, it may interrupt your programming and reduce your 30 minutes of programming to 22, or whatever the current ratio is. It may get in your face in the form of a :30, often-annoying bit of video strung together with other :30 clips to form a 2-3 minute pod. In the end, it’s still video content.

TiVo’s statements haven’t specified how this thing will manifest itself, but it seems the primary delivery will occur via something like the existing TiVo showcases, which have been used by movie studios, automobile manufacturers, and other advertisers. The press release refers to opt-in and says, “TiVo subscribers, if they choose to use the search capability, will retain control over their viewing experience through the creation of a viewer contributed profile via the set-top box that will enable them to receive advertisements based on their interests.”

You could imagine the company may eventually try to insert tailored ads into regular viewing, but that doesn’t sound like the goal for now. Still, “viewer contributed profile” might spook some users. Why not “viewer-created profile”? The word “contributed” makes it seem as if the viewer is only part of the equation.

Respect for the consumer should always be the top priority. Without the consumer, we have nothing. I think TiVo recognizes this and is trying to strike a difficult balance. For the consumer, if ad searching is limited to on-demand searching, it seems relatively safe.

People use the Web to research all kinds of products. Currently, online content isn’t all that rich. It’s mostly static photos and text. There’s some 3-D modeling, video, and interactive rich media that make content more compelling, but mostly it’s text and static images. Rich media content (and/or rich internet applications) continues to gain online momentum, including video. Who’s to say a year from now when you search for information on the latest iPod, the content won’t be mostly video? Isn’t that basically what TiVo’s talking about here? And once you raise your hand as interested in that kind of thing, during programming you may be streamed an iPod ad along with an ad for a competitor.

Some posters are actually excited by scenarios such as this one. They see how addressable advertising could actually be helpful. One young guy was tired of ads for feminine products and Viagra and looks forward to a day when ads won’t be so irrelevant. Rather, they’ll be interesting and important to him, which in and of itself makes them less intrusive.

That’s been the vision, right? TiVo continues to scrape and claw its way toward that vision. But we all need to find a way to make all consumers excited by it. Because, from what I read on the discussion boards, most would rather opt out.

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