unZapped

My “real job” is in advertising. For thirty years now I’ve spent my days producing just about anything that has a logo on it…from can coozies to billboards to print ads to TV commercials. A huge part of my week is devoted to producing TV commercials (or “spots” in the industry lingo). Yes, I am one of the legion of hard working professionals who makes those thirty second bits of brilliance that wind up clustered between 8 minute segments of your favorite shows. I can spend six to eight hours or more doing all the work necessary to create a single spot. Spots have voiceovers and soundtracks and graphics and video shot out in the field or maybe in a studio…sometimes they have animations and special effects. Mine are local and not too expensive, but some national spots can cost into the millions to produce.

And what do you do when one of these lovingly crafted half minutes of awesomeness comes on the screen? You zap ’em…ignore ’em…you do your damnedest to miss them completely. No matter who it’s for, or what it’s about, a spot is a pitch designed to get you to buy something. Everybody knows it, so everybody goes out of their way to avoid them. Wanna know the truth? When I have the footrest kicked up on the Berkline and my thumb is flashing across the TiVo control, I do it, too.

The unspoken, unwritten agreement between creators of TV and viewers has always been, we’ll give you this content for free but you have to watch the commercials.

In the early days of TV, produced commercials weren’t the norm. Shows would be “brought to you by” an advertiser. This was a holdover from radio. Sometimes a key character in the show would take a moment to puff a Pall Mall or swig a big glass of Ovaltine while pitching the product. Sponsoring an entire show was an expensive proposition. Only the biggest advertisers could foot the bill for the biggest shows. 

Spot ads existed in the early days. The first television ad to ever be run in the U.S. aired July 1st, 1941 in New York before a Dodgers-Phillies game. The 19 people with television sets in the greater New York area saw a second hand sweep around the screen as the words “Bulova Watch Time” appeared in the lower corner. The ad lasted 10 seconds and cost the company nine dollars. TV execs realized sponsorships could be more affordable if they could offset some of the total cost by selling spot ads to smaller advertisers. Spot ads started to creep into sponsored shows by the late 1950s. 

It wasn’t until the era of the fully produced 30 minute sitcom and 60 minute drama that spot advertising came into its own. Those early hours carved out 9 minutes for advertising, which left 51 minutes for “Bonanza” or “77 Sunset Strip.” Americans discovered they could go to the bathroom or make a sandwich in two and a half minutes.

If you chose to stay seated during the commercial break, you saw the commercials. Until, that is, you were handed a remote control. With a remote, instead of leaving the room or just ignoring commercials, viewers could actively avoid TV spots. Hey! Not fair! What about the agreement? 

The remote ushered in the era of “zapping”. Technically, “zapping” means changing the channel during a commercial break to sample other content. It wasn’t until the widespread use of VCRs in the early 1980s that we developed the companion term “zipping”. Zipping is fast forwarding through recorded commercials. You don’t hear zipping much anymore. It’s pretty much all zapping in the era of the DVR.

That noise you heard in 1999 was the collective gut clenching of the TV industry. A company named TiVo, and another called ReplayTV, debuted Digital Video Recorders (DVRs) at the Consumer Electronics Show that year.

DVRs are now in just under 50% of all American homes. DVRs have almost automated the TV recording process. They catch everything you want to see in pristine, digital quality. DVRs make it so easy to time-shift when you watch a show, and so easy to completely avoid commercials, they’ve inspired lawsuits. A suit filed by both FOX and NBC said if a viewer doesn’t watch the commercials they are basically bootlegging a TV show. It’s copyright infringement if you don’t watch the ads!! Waaaah!

Oh, come on…we’ve never REALLY watched the ads. The suit, of course, was thrown out.

Some studies say DVR users are actually more aware of ads than non-time shifting watchers. Even though they are rushing by at 8x normal speed, you have to study them closely in order to hit the “play” button again. You see logos and products so the advertiser gets some exposure. Also, if you are zapping spots with your DVR, you stay in the room with the spots instead of running to the john. That’s a positive.

As a producer of commercials, I’d prefer you actually watch the whole spot. I’m happy to report there are places where that’s happening again!

A couple of years ago we subscribed to a streaming service called HuluPlus. HuluPlus has movies, but their focus is on episodic TV, including current season TV. If you didn’t DVR last night’s “Daily Show”, you can get it this morning from HuluPlus in full HD quality. BUT, you’ll have to watch some commercials. HuluPlus runs about a minute of commercials during the natural breaks. These aren’t the spots that aired when the show ran on the network. These are spots sold, and inserted, by HuluPlus…and you can’t zap them. HuluPlus says, even though you pay a small monthly subscription fee, they have to sell the spots to offset the costs of airing new network content. Including, I assume, paying off the network for the content. Most of the spots are national, but recently HuluPlus has started to zone spot delivery by state and region.

New content with spots you HAVE to watch? As an ad guy I like hearing this. As a viewer, I’m trying to perfect the one minute bathroom break.

[Questions? Comments? Column ideas? I would LOVE to hear from you! Write me at: allen.stare@gmail.com]

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