Mike Shaw, ABC’s President of Advertising Sales, said this week that he would love to have the opportunity to shut down the “fast forward” button on users’ DVRs. Though he did not claim that commercial-skipping TiVo owners were thieves, Shaw is clearly unhappy with how easy it is to skip his network’s ads.
Shutting down the fast forward feature on DVR isn’t an easy proposition, though; ABC would require support from DVR makers, who could build their devices to recognize the presence of a broadcast flag. The flag would tell the DVR whether fast forwarding should be allowed during any particular show. But what DVR maker would want to do this? Shaw told MediaDailyNews that he “would love it if the MSOs [cable companies], during the deployment of the new DVRs they’re putting out there, would disable the fast-forward [button].” It doesn’t require a great leap of imagination to suspect that ABC is in such talks with cable companies right now.
From the network’s perspective, this is probably the best way to neutralize ad-skipping, which has taken its toll on network ad revenues over the last few years. Trying to talk a company like TiVo into disabling features that consumers want is probably a hard sell, but cable companies might be more receptive to the idea. Most cable operators also make money from local ad revenue, and would stand to gain revenue by making it harder for their customers to skip ads.
What about a customer backlash? In Shaw’s view, this is unlikely, as he believes that most people enjoy their DVRs simply because they can time-shift video content like a high-tech VCR; commercial skipping is just gravy. Take away the gravy, and customers should still be happy to eat their mashed potatoes.
“I’m not so sure that the whole issue really is one of commercial avoidance,” Shaw said. “It really is a matter of convenience—so you don’t miss your favorite show. And quite frankly, we’re just training a new generation of viewers to skip commercials because they can. I’m not sure that the driving reason to get a DVR in the first place is just to skip commercials. I don’t fundamentally believe that. People can understand in order to have convenience and on-demand (options), that you can’t skip commercials.”
The majority of DVR users do skip commercials, though, making this a potentially risky strategy for the cable companies. So long as competitors like TiVo and HTPCs exist, unhappy customers can always go elsewhere. Should TiVo, especially, ever fold, most consumers would no doubt settle for whatever is offered by their local cable provider.
Even as ABC pushes to halt fast forwarding, customer anger at TV advertising is growing. Though Shaw notes that “we’ve had the exact same commercial load for three years in a row,” he’s been hearing more complaints from customers about these intrusions into stories they are trying to watch. While no doubt irritating to consumers, who would skip commercials if they could, there’s no denying the fact that network TV shows are only free because of that advertising. Finding the right balance is proving to be tricky.
In Europe, by contrast, some television services are actually encouraging more use of DVRs. While ABC seeks ways to restrict DVR functionality, satellite provider BSkyB wants to offer more of it to its European customers. The company just announced a plan to allow remote recording of TV shows by using one’s mobile phone. Users can set their home DVRs by texting to a special number or by accessing a program guide right from their handset.