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They Just Don’t Get It

March 2nd, 2008

Here’s the latest genius masterstroke from the networks:

Looking to strike a blow against the proliferation of digital video recorders, the ABC network, its affiliated broadcast stations, and Cox Communications’ cable systems are establishing an on-demand video service that would allow viewers to watch ABC shows like “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” any time they choose.

The catch: It uses a new technology that disables the viewers’ ability to fast-forward through commercials. …

ABC and Cox executives said that consumer response to the test had been positive. Several executives involved in the project, which ABC plans to offer to other cable systems around the country, said the move was an overt attempt to staunch the use of DVRs like TiVo, which viewers often use to avoid commercials. That activity is increasingly seen as threat to broadcast television, which depends on ad revenue to pay for programs.

“This does counter the DVR,” said Anne Sweeney, the president of the Disney-ABC television group. “You don’t need TiVo if you have fast-forward-disabled video on demand. It gives you the same opportunity to catch up to your favorite shows.”

So, to quote Maxwell Smart’s various and sundry opponents, exactly what kind of idiots do they think we are? “Hmm, I have this DVR sitting right here and can record the TV show in high-def and can blow through all the commercials… or I can wait a few days, and then slowly download a lower-res, DRM-studded version of the show that I have to watch on my PC with the fast-forward disabled, forcing me to watch commercials.”

Easy choice! Since I’m a complete and utter moron, I’ll watch the downloadable version!

They just don’t get it, do they? The networks, I mean. They seem to think that these various schemes they keep on coming up with will somehow just destroy people’s ability to think rationally and decide to do what is in their best interests. Now, if they were Republicans, maybe they’d be a lot more skilled at it. Unfortunately, studio and network executives aren’t running the GOP, otherwise Bush would have certainly lost four years ago. Instead, their stupidity is wasted on these Quixotic, worthless attempts to bypass the far more appealing alternatives that average viewers can clearly see are better for them.

I have said it before: there is only one way this can work out to the content providers’ benefit: narrowcasting.

What they have to do is give up the old-school thinking of doing things in broadcast mode and switch to delivering personalized content. The pay-as-you-go method of making people pay $2 to watch a TV show they’re used to getting for free just ain’t gonna cut it with 95% of the audience. And people are now too used to being able to cut through commercials or otherwise getting past the dreck that is advertising. 97% of the audience isn’t expected to watch or be interested in commercials anyway–it’s just getting that 3% who happen to be interested in the commercial being shown at the moment which is key. And there is only one solution that is really going to work in a big way.

Here’s the condensed version: make all video content available online–all old movies and TV shows, as well as new television series episodes as they are produced. Make it so people can browse an iTunes-like interface and easily choose which programming they’d like. Then stream it to them, or download in higher definition, whatever works best.

But here’s the key: personalize the commercials. Don’t broadcast, narrowcast. You’ll have to find out what people want to see, so instead of charging money, you have people answer some questions once a month. They have to say what kind of commercials they like to see, want to see. What will they be buying in the next month? What subjects are they interested in?

One thing we all have in common is that there are commercials we like to see. For me, if all my commercials were movie previews, computer commercials, and commercials for stuff I plan to buy in the near future (local wedding chapels is one, in my case, or ideas for what to buy Sachi for her birthday)–then I would want to watch the commercial breaks.

Knowing that I would have to watch commercials, I would be OK so long as the commercials were ones I wanted to see. And I would be glad to give up that info to get access to all the programming I’d like to watch. Privacy, schmivacy–most people give up that data in exchange for a member’s card at their local supermarket and a two-dollar discount on three refrigerator packs of Diet Coke.

This would be golden for the advertisers: instead of reaching only 3% of the audience, they’d be reaching over 90% in all likelihood–30 times the value. The studios could even eliminate the middleman in the form of local stations, and make off like bandits. The advertisers would be happy, the viewers would be happy, and the studios would get rich.

It’ll take bigger investment in broadband, which is overdue anyway, and details would have to be worked out to salvage DVD sales. Maybe offer the downloadable stuff in 480i old-fashioned TV quality, and then sell DVDs of the shows in Blu-ray with the extra features and commentary–they’ve probably already mined out most of the 480i DVD sales anyway.

However they figure that out, the narrowcasting option is the only viable option that I can see. Frankly, whenever I see one of these stupid, lame attempts by the networks to “do away with” DVRs or pirate downloads or whatever, I just laugh. They are all pathetic and doomed, and clearly so.

When are they going to learn?

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