Friday, July 23, 2004
"Sit Down And Watch That Commercial, Thief!" 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
I find this controversial idea - television viewers being morally obligated to watch commercials as "fair payment" for the privilege of watching programs - fascinating, because I used to make television and radio commercials for a living for over ten years. Selfishly, I would have liked people to have watched and/or listened to my recorded concoctions because of the great deal of thought and creativity (ha ha, at least I thought so; I'm sure many of them were utter shite) that went into each one.

Peter Northup at Crescat Sententia posts,
"...a few years back, Jamie Kellner, CEO of Turner Television, gives an interview in which he argues that people who skip TV ads--this was in the middle of the ReplayTV lawsuit, I believe--are stealing.
[Ad skips are] theft. Your contract with the network when you get the show is you're going to watch the spots. Otherwise you couldn't get the show on an ad-supported basis. Any time you skip a commercial or watch the button you're actually stealing the programming.
Now, I can't get the full interview; it was over two years ago and the link doesn't seem to work; I found this account at Lawmeme. But a google search turns up lots of outraged commentary. (Kellner went on to say that bathroom breaks qualify for "a certain amount of tolerance" vis-a-vis ad-skipping, which prompted much derision.)

The thing is, Kellner's argument seems to be a pretty cut-and-dried application of Rawls' Duty of Fair Play (for a brief discussion, check here and scroll to part II, "Fairness"). Now, this idea--very roughly, that beneficiaries of a collectively provided good ought to 'do their share' in paying for it--has been criticized by ny. But at least in suitably qualified form, it holds a lot of intuitive appeal, and people use it all the time. If there's a public good that (a) I genuinely value and (b) I actively choose to enjoy and (c) would not be provided but for the voluntary contributions of the beneficiaries, don't I have a moral duty to 'do my part'?" [read full post]
These days I like to think of myself as more civil libertarian than advertising producer, so I don't believe that viewers need to keep their buttocks planted on the sofa during every soap and mouthwash ad that comes on the screen to avoid being guilty of "theft."

The only way I could concede there is some value to this Rawlsian contention is in the increasingly rare instance of "free TV" - not including cable, pay-per-view, and public television, where you're under an honor system paying membership fees for the privilege of not watching commercials, and so on - and even then, I say "it all comes out in the wash" if viewers channel-surf or take a fridge break.

Which brings up more questions. If you channel-surf during a commercial break on Program A, you may very well switch to a concurrent commercial break during Program B, C, or D, and so on, or you may land on another program you like better than Program A. Does the "enjoyment value" of the few minutes of alternate programming you surf to require you to watch the commercials on those networks? If you channel-surf, are the networks airing shows B, C, and D "stealing" advertising dollars from Network A and the advertisers buying spots during Program A?

What about delayed viewing? If I record a program, am I then also obliged to watch the commercials every time I view the recording? I say "no," because I believe advertisers who pay for spots only purchase those specific time slots within regularly scheduled programming, not additional private viewings by individuals. How about this: if I record a show and then play it later for a group of friends (with commercial breaks intact!) do the advertisers owe me money, since I am acting as a "network subcontractor" of sorts by giving their products additional 'unpaid' exposure?

For that matter, it can be argued that networks are being cheated out of advertising revenue if people do watch commercials within viewer-recorded programs (videotape, TiVo, etc.) after they have watched the commercials during regularly scheduled programming.

Let's say - for the sake of argument - that an advertiser pays $50,000 for one airing of a 30-second spot. If the spot is seen again when the viewer watches their videotape, the network loses money since the program gives additional benefit or "enjoyment" - but the network receives no further payment from the advertisers, who benefit from additional gratis viewings ("impressions") of their spot.

Using Kellner's logic turned on its head, advertisers should be actively discouraging viewers from watching their spots during taped programming, since this constitutes advertisers' "stealing" from networks. Perhaps Kellner would again blame the viewers, as being "accessories" to theft by videotaping shows for later consumption. The whole issue becomes disgustingly convoluted in a hurry.

Basically, I don't agree with the contention that viewers are "under a contract with the network" to watch commercials within a television program. Advertisers certainly don't bank on this assumption, and ratings and audience surveys demonstrate that viewers are a fickle, channel-surfing lot. If I understand the process correctly, advertisers pay rates proportional to a show's metered popularity during a given timeslot. The price of spots is calculated according to secret formulae estimating what percentage of viewers will actually be watching; no one [at least no honest network] promises advertisers that every viewer will remain planted at attention in their seats for the duration of the entire program.

Advertisers get the "luck of the draw" of which viewers actually take in their commercials...you're likely to catch the attention of people who are not thirsty or hungry (unless you're selling food or drink), hearing Nature's call, or who are actually interested in the commercial or the product being hawked. In that sense it behooves advertisers and networks to do their research to make ads entertaining, compelling, and relevant to their audiences to maximize their ad's effectiveness: you can't really "guilt" a male sports fan into sitting through a mid-game tampon commercial because he "owes it to the network."

Which doesn't really respond to Kellner (or Rawls) - but I think most people would agree that attention to advertising is a voluntary act, and because few audiences are truly captive, the advertiser's role is to "fish" for customers using attractive, interesting "bait." Some of the best commercials are far more memorable than the programming they're placed in.

Drivers are not "under contract" with owners of land adjacent to highways to view billboards, just as riders waiting for a train are not bidden to read ad posters for the privilege of standing on the platform, although the their placement may help defray costs. But many drivers, riders (and TV viewers) do look, and some actually buy the products advertised. In this sense, the system works as it should, even if only a small fraction of any given program's viewers actually go on to buy the products being shown in ads. If advertisers are getting less "bang for their buck" these days, it's not necessarily because people are skipping ads or using the bathroom more frequently. There is unavoidable audience dilution when viewers have dozens - even hundreds - of simultaneously-aired programs to choose from.

Bottom line: viewers love being able choose from "500-plus" channels at the click of a button, and I think networks and advertisers probably shouldn't complain that their slices of the pie are shrinking. After all, there's so much more pie to go around.

UPDATE: CS guest Milbarge follows up to Peter Northup.