TV Online: Who’s Paying the Bill?

Maybe some remote culture somewhere has never watched TV or used a spork (define), but most of the world knows what television is. We know the shows we watch are paid for by those annoying commercials we endure between the scenes. As much as people hate ads, they know they’re a necessary evil for the mainstream, non-subscription TV viewer.

This model hasn’t changed in over three decades. And why should it? It runs very well, and the craft of making :30 commercials more entertaining than the shows they support has provided some great creative moments.

When the Internet started taking shape in 1995, many people spoke openly about TV’s demise and the portability of content coming through various media devices. We’re getting very close to that reality, but first we had to go through a long, painful adolescence.

All that time, TV spots hadn’t changed. Apart from the ubiquitous company URL at the end of each spot, we’ve seen very little intrinsic shifts in the shape of TV commercials. They’ve become an art form we’ve reluctantly grown accustomed to.

That’s all about to change.

More video content is put on the Web every day, and it’s more than just commercials. But how will they be paid for? Will banner ads do the trick in the long run? How can you put a rich media banner next to a video spot and expect people to be OK with that?

First, let’s look at how things are done today:

  • Banner encapsulation. You’ve seen it before: a series of banners surrounding the video spot doing its best to get your attention. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

  • Preroll. This is the Internet version of TV spot placement. It’s probably the most annoying type of placement as it’s in front of your video content. I went to look at some video content about the history of Rosa Parks, for example, and was shocked to see a very alpha-male truck commercial. Not only did I have to wait for my content, the ad seemed out of context.
  • Unedited content. This is as simple as converting the TV signal to stream to a Web browser. No fuss, no muss, no real tracking or accountability, and just as annoying as regular TV, but smaller.

A few months back, CNN opened the content gates and allowed users to get the news bites they see on TV for free on its Web site. It combined the preroll and the banner placement for maximum monetization. Good for CNN, an unwanted advertising orgy for viewers.

In contrast, complete 30- and 60-minute TV shows appear online in France without commercials or a direct relation to an advertiser. Some of this relates to how the French like to be different, but it also has a lot to do with government subsidies.

How the model will be revised remains to be seen. A lot of models could work; but advertisers and publishers must remember too much advertising irritates users. That isn’t news to anyone, but if publishers have a reality lapse, we all suffer for it.

Advertisers, look at the amount of clutter around your online video spot or rich media banners. Would you buy an expensive billboard that was practically obscured by three other billboards? When it comes to video placements for a TV commercial, think collaboratively. A banner that interactively extends the communication under a video spot can be very effective.

One group, Participatory Culture Foundation, decided to stay clear of dealing with the ad problem. Its prime goal is getting the video working right, and it’s bringing TV to the Web (for Mac users only, sorry). The hope is that with a new delivery method come new ways of getting content paid for by advertisers. There are a few ways to make this work, but for now we’ll have to wait and see.

We live on the edge of a change. Our audiences have become fragmented. Our time has been shifted. There seems to be no end to it. But like a great meal, it’s all in the presentation.

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