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Political ads go up against DVR tech

Is there a TiVo effect when it comes to campaign spots? For those who've had enough of mudslinging, there is.

Christopher Ditty, like so many television viewers by now, is sick of political ads.

The Horn Lake, Miss., resident lives just five minutes from Memphis, Tenn., and is being bombarded with commercials from the two candidates for the open U.S. Senate seat in Tenneesse, Republican Bob Corker and his opponent, Democrat Rep. Harold Ford.

"It seems like there (are) one to two (political) ads every break," Ditty said.

But Ditty now has the technology to fight back: His digital video recorder (DVR), a generic model from his local cable company, allows him to skip through the barrage of increasingly nasty ads.

Fans of DVRs--those from market leader TiVo and its many competitors--have long talked up the freedom the machines give them from all kinds of commercials. Now people like Ditty are finding that the current crop of political spots are the best reason they've ever had to hit fast-forward.

While it's impossible to say just how many people are using DVRs to ditch this year's political message, few doubt, with TiVo's increasing popularity and the growing number of DVR features being provided by cable providers, the political ad refusenik class is growing.

The question is just how much of an impact this tech-savvy crowd is having. While some leading political consultants say they're not worried yet about wasted ad dollars due to such a phenomenon, they acknowledge it's something to keep an eye on in future elections.

"I have thought about it," said Kyle Roberts, the president of Smart Media Group, an Alexandria, Va., political consultancy. "Some of the polling we do, we do ask people if they have DVRs and try to gauge penetration."

But Roberts, who said campaigns across the country have already spent a record $1.2 billion on the 2006 midterm elections, thinks it's too early to worry about a Tivo effect on political ad campaigns. "TiVo and DVRs, in my estimation, have not reached a point yet where they're a problem," he said, "because the penetration just isn't high enough yet."

TV ads work
That DVRs could somehow be changing the way politicians spend their ad dollars may for the moment be wishful thinking among technophiles. According to David Miller, an analyst at Sanders Morris Harris Group, DVRs have a 7.5 percent penetration rate nationwide, with just 8.25 million out of 110 million households having one of the machines.

Fred Davis, who runs the Hollywood political consultancy Strategic Perception, argued that in spite of DVRs and the ability they give users to skip ads, there is nothing like television for spreading the word about political candidates and issues.

"At the end of the day, (even) if you include DVRs," Davis said, "if you include everything, the Internet, radios, there's still not a medium that comes anywhere close to the importance of broadcast television in politics."

"The only sadness is that the fast-forward feature doesn't work on live TV."
--Christopher Ditty, Mississippi resident, DVR owner

But some experts think political advertisers should at least be thinking about the power of the fast-forward button.

"In general, advertisers have started to be concerned as adoption of DVRs increases," said Bruce McGregor, a senior digital home services analyst at Current Analysis. "Election ads would fall into that category if (voters have) seen the same political ads the last month and want to fast-forward through them."

Ditty is hardly alone, of course, in his bid to skip through what he sees as a worsening environment of negative political ad campaigning, even while continuing to watch a significant amount of television.

Larry Rodman, from Brookline, N.H., serves on his town's finance committee and lives close enough to Massachusetts to be saturated with ads in that state's gubernatorial race. He'll sometimes watch normal commercials but has zero tolerance for political ads.

"I generally fast-forward through ads," said Rodman. "However, if I see something that looks like it might be interesting, I usually stop and go back. Whenever I see political ads (though), I just skip through them because I think they're all spin."

Of course, to the political campaigns, TV is a necessity, and even if one segment of the viewing public is turned off by the ubiquity or the nastiness of the ads, there is still a significant percentage that watches. And politicos aren't aiming high. Julie Barko Germany, the deputy director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University's graduate school of political management, said political advertisers are only hoping for direct-mail response rates.

"We've known for a long time that people get sick" of political ads, said Barko Germany. "But (they) still seem to do them because they work, they rile up the base and they help with fundraising. They're kind of like telemarketers or (spammers). It annoys the hell out of people, but it's still economical enough."

Interestingly, satellite television services like DirecTV and Dish Network are seen as a bigger problem than DVRs because those services don't allow targeted advertising in local areas, said Roberts, who works on campaign spots for Republicans.

"Rural voters are important to Republicans," he said, "and turning those people out (to vote) is important to our prescription for winning. And in some of those rural markets, the satellite subscriptions are higher than cable."

Nonetheless, to increasingly cynical people like Ditty, the DVR is the best antidote to the "half-lies" and "half-truths" of political advertisements.

"There are times when we aren't paying attention and actually see them and then we remember why we skip them now," said Ditty, who mixes his TV watching between recorded programs and live shows. "The only sadness is that the fast-forward feature doesn't work on live TV."