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Crave Talk: Sky high with Net fever

Gently dozing through The Simpsons closing credits on Sky One last Sunday, I heard a snatch of conversation so bizarre it had to have been a hallucination, writes Crave's Rupert Goodwins

By Sunday evening, the weekend is wearing off. Usually. Last Sunday, I had my doubts: gently dozing through The Simpsons' closing credits, I heard a snatch of conversation so bizarre it had to have been a hallucination.

Fortunately for those with reality issues, new technology now exists to help work out which side of the blood-brain barrier such voices originate. I pressed replay on the Sky+ digital recorder.

Woman: And remember! Sky One's the only place to see brand-new Simpsons.
Man: Well, not strictly true, I've got a mate who downloads them from the States.
He's got, uh, Superman, Pirates of the Caribbean as well.
Woman: Well, you do know that's massively illegal, Christian, don't you?
Man: Really? Are you sure? He's a copper.

It took a couple of seconds to sink in. I stabbed pause -- freezing a glutinous slice of Domino's Pizza in mid-heist -- and contemplated what I'd just heard. BSkyB, one of the most aggressive media companies in the country, had just reminded its viewers that they could bypass it entirely and cop an eyeful of yellow-skinned comedy straight from the modem. Admittedly, the Simpsons are part of Murdoch's happy family -- but the money comes from the advertising, and the advertising doesn't come with the download. Why was BSkyB cutting its own throat?

I realised I'd been staring at an oozing slab of unappetising semi-molten cheese for two minutes, and fast-forwarded at 16x into the next programme. That's the best thing about a PVR -- pause at the beginning of an ad break, go and do what you like then fast-forward into the programme when you return. Once again, the company was giving me tools to reduce its revenue.

Deeply strange, especially as its competitors in the US are doing quite the opposite. ABC's president of advertising, Mike Shaw, is on record as saying he wants PVRs to disable fast-forward during adverts. He doesn't think we'll mind, claiming that we'll "warm to the idea that anytime viewing brings with it a trade-off in the form of unavoidable commercial viewing". Yes, and denial is a river in Egypt.

Light dawned yesterday afternoon: BSkyB announced 'free' broadband for subscribers. It's not exactly free -- the 2Mb service has no monthly charges but is capped and costs £90 to join -- but it is very good value. Sixteen megs for a tenner a month? Can anyone make money at that?

That's a good question. It's almost as good as "Can anyone make money with old-style TV advertising?" While the answer to the first question is "yes, probably", the second is "not for much longer".

Nothing on this earth is going to make me sit through a Domino's Pizza advert, short of Mike Shaw pinning my eyelids back with hooks and binding my arms to the seat. Any attempts at coercion will just hasten the process of me and everyone else with half a brain taking our viewing habits even further online than they are already.

It won't take much: between snacking on YouTube and Google Video, watching BitTorrents of movies old and new, and hanging out in forums discussing what they've seen, the modern viewer has about twenty seconds a week left for old-fashioned telly. The ratings show it.

What BSkyB knows is that the money's moving. Forget 30-second spots, hello interactive entertainment with a message. Never mind brash, mindless adverts that beat you into submission -- go for advertising as content, stuff you want to watch. Then it doesn't matter how it's delivered or what sort of filters the end consumer could apply: if they want something, they'll try hard to get it. And how valuable is that set of eyeballs to an advertiser? They'd rather have one eager consumer than a hundred people who are barely aware of the expensive flickering in the corner of the room.

Awareness of change is still no guarantee of a slice of the action to everyone who wants it. But BSkyB knows better than to hang around flogging a dying horse: it's going to jump off and head towards the finish even if it means holding on tight to an unruly bronco for a while. And who would you rather bet on -- a company that wants to file off your fast-forward button, or one that's cool with the fact that most people's personal morality doesn't see BitTorrenting as sinful?

There'll be fun to come, though, especially if BSkyB finds all its bandwidth being used by the punters sucking down BBC programming via Watch Again -- or whatever the Corporation calls its planned video-on-demand service.

Meanwhile, keep on doing what you're doing out there: reality is seeping through to the boardrooms, and sanity will prevail.

The hallucinations prove it. -Rupert Goodwins