The DVR: Return of Digital’s Prodigal Son

What’s ceased to amaze me these days is the amount of time I can waste online. Not that it amazed me before, but nowadays it all seems a bit much.

So where do I go for some refuge? TV? Well, that’s hardly a place known for continuity or unclutteredness. If you own a DVR, you possess all that’s available in terms of control over TV.

If you’ve never used a DVR, it’s really quite amazing. First you hate it. Then in a week or so, you can’t imagine life without it. In essence, DVRs are what fax machines were in the ’80s: a form of addictive symbiosis.

A DVR isn’t just a convenient recording device. It’s also a control device with a certain level of interactivity. As an affirmed DVR addict, I must confess it’s appealed to that part of my brain… or, what’s left of it.

You’d think with such a great piece of technology there’d be a great ad model for it. Well, it’s hardly a model. It seems more like an afterthought.

That may seem harsh, but adding a small banner at the top of a TV spot that leads to more DVR-based ad content just isn’t very compelling. When you add a link at the bottom of the menu that says, “Get to know the new…,” you aren’t giving me — the user — a reason to explore your ad.

In fact, most people are programmed to avoid any TV-based ad (Super Bowl excluded), whether it could be valuable to them or not. You’d think with the power of the DVR there must be something that could be done to get around that behavior.

Could you simply provide DVRs with or without advertising, with the monthly cost savings being handed over to the ad-watching subscriber? It’s been done, but there’s still is a problem of how to force someone to actually watch the ads, short of holding their eyelids open.

Maybe in a few decades behavior will be different, but right now this is how things are.

Regardless, by 2007 DVR home use is expected to reach 20 million. With that kind of growth, you need to do some fancy footwork in your software to turn an afterthought ad model into a forethought.

You may think the Internet could teach the DVR a few things about all this integrated advertising stuff, but that would be a leap of faith.

Online advertising is anything but humble. At best, it’s smart, innovative, and remarkable. At worst, it’s the cheapest prostitution of human expression.

Harsh? Yes. But I’ve seen my fill of dumb tricks to get me to click on a banner. Maybe it’s me, but I can’t look at another popping corn cob ever again.

As Marshall McLuhan said, “All advertising advertises advertising.”

When we try to formulate a what-if for DVRs and the Internet, we start seeing double. Right now, we can’t seem to rationalize a long-form, commercial-rich TV viewing experience with a short-form Internet video viewing experience.

Can the two come together? Will the DVR cut the Gordian knot of the integrated, user-enabled, advertiser-funded screen-based entertainment experience?

Apart from living in constant hope, I’ve resigned myself to the one thing I can depend on: a new technology. I’m not sure what that technology is, but I’m sure it’s out there, somewhere.

Until that happens, are we faced with this grand experiment called digitally delivered advertising (in all its various forms) messing with our eyeballs and tantalizing us to click? I’m afraid so. What seems to have happened in the split between TV and the Internet is an old story.

The prodigal son (digital TV-based advertising) leaves to find his own way and squanders all his wealth, only to return a broken man asking for redemption. Meanwhile, the other son (Web-based advertising), who faithfully toiled the fields, is left wondering why he isn’t appreciated.

Old as this story is, it still has the context of our fast-moving world. Marketers must realize learning before we can apply it. And sharing it with people we’re in competition with is a lot harder than many of us realize.

Meet Dorian at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose, August 7-10, 2006, at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.

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