Future Implications: We fast-forward (and watch) commercials

In a recent study conducted by NBC, people were hooked up to sensors and shown television shows. During their time watching the show, researchers took note of changes in heart rate, palm sweat, eye movement and breathing patterns to see how the human bod

Don Reisinger
Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
5 min read

In a recent study conducted by NBC, people were hooked up to sensors and shown television shows. During their time watching the show, researchers took note of changes in heart rate, palm sweat, eye movement and breathing patterns to see how the human body reacts to the program. From there, the researchers showed commercials in fast-forward to measure if the same bodily reactions were present during the commercials. The answer is actually good for everyone involved: they were the same.

Although it evolved out of a series of recording technologies before it, the Digital Video Recorder can be officially traced back to 1999 at the Consumer Electronics Show. At this show, two unknown products: TiVo and ReplayTV showed off what would become one of the most important products in the past decade. With this new technology, consumers were finally able to record television shows without the need for a tape, and easy access to these recorded shows meant we could fast forward our way through those annoying commercials.

In a matter of days, tech columnists were saying DVR was the greatest thing since sliced bread, while major networks (CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX) were clearing bank accounts to stop the possible issue of lost revenues. Although the logic was confusing at best and desperate at worst, networks claimed that fast-forwarding commercials would spell the end of quality programming because consumers would fast-forward through commercials and advertisers would lose the need to promote products on television. Unfortunately, this rhetoric continues today.

I take offense to networks justifying why I shouldn't be allowed to fast-forward my way through television shows by threatening bad television. Do they really think we are that dumb? The reason television networks want companies to remove the fast-forward button is because it costs them money -- and lots of it.

According to a study conducted by Jupiter Research in 2006, DVR users sped their way through almost $8 billion in advertising and that number should rise in all subsequent years.

For years, networks have claimed that our ability to fast-forward through commercials is damaging to the entire television infrastructure, but do you honestly believe that network executives don't use a TiVo at their homes? Further, do these self-righteous commercial lovers watch every car dealership ad just because it helps the network survive? By that justification, couldn't it be said that NBC executives should only watch NBC shows and ABC executives should never even consider watching 24 just because it's on another channel and fewer ratings means less revenue? Oh, and one more thing: if networks are so concerned about ratings and are insistent upon us watching live TV, they should tell their own executives to stop recording shows they missed because of a late meeting.

But as annoying as these arguments are, the release of the NBC study effectively solves two issues for people on both sides of the fence. Now that we know people are actually responding to commercials in fast forward, TV networks have no reason to attack DVR manufacturers or lobby in Congress -- commercials are still getting through to us. On the other hand, the people who strongly support DVRs now have the proof they need to justify the fast-forward button and keep their boxes for the future.

We not only should have the right to fast-forward any show we want, we should have the option to do it at any time. With this study, the writing on the wall seems clear: keep pushing your advertising at us and do what you have to do to make your money, just expect us to hit the fast-forward button. That said, the future implications of this study should become all the more apparent: networks still haven't dropped the idea that we are not watching television shows when they are live, and so they must charge less for advertising because of worse ratings. Nonsense.

Explain something to me networks: before we had Nielsen Ratings and all of the other ratings matrices that you cherish today, how did you ever find a way to charge for advertising? You adopted the Nielsen Ratings system to charge for advertising, why can't you adopt a similar system that measures the number of people who DVR a specific show. With that data in hand and armed with this study, you could go to the advertisers and ask for more. Is it that difficult?

Maybe I am off base here, but to me, that solution seems quite practical. Nielsen already uses a variation of this model and so far, these numbers have proven to be quite useful. In January 2006, Nielsen unveiled its first report on DVR viewer-ship and House's ratings jumped from a 2.2 to a 2.3 for that week. See? More revenue!

Unfortunately we are knee-deep in a battle between the old guard who believes in live static programming and the new guard who believes in the right for consumers to do whatever they want with the material being streamed into their homes. And while there is a whole intellectual property debate helping to add more fuel to the flame, the basic premise of this struggle is simple: networks are looking for as much money as possible and consumers are looking for the best possible viewing experience. But what networks don't seem to realize is that they are in a sinking ship. As Internet advertising becomes more logical and effective, it will not be the consumers who will change, it'll be the networks who will be fighting for their lives.

Much like the days of radio where television became the chosen medium for advertising, TV is losing ground to Internet advertising. And unless these networks realize that change is not only necessary, but it is required for future well-being, the need for fast-forwarding may become a moot point: no one will want to advertise on TV.

Change is upon us. And while we, the consumers, are ready to meet that change head-on with a fast-forward button pressing against our thumbs and commercials flying by, networks are unwilling to welcome that change, and so regardless of how they respond to this study, networks are faced with a severe problem. Let's hope they make the right decision and try to change.