CAMPAIGN INTERACTIVE: BEHIND THE HYPE/WEB TV ADVERTISING - How an interactive icon may change the nature of ad breaks. Richard Cook looks at the way TV viewers manage to look at commercials and Websites at the same time

When the US network, CBS, screened the 40th annual Grammy Music Awards in February, it was one of the struggling broadcaster’s most important presentations of the year.

When the US network, CBS, screened the 40th annual Grammy Music

Awards in February, it was one of the struggling broadcaster’s most

important presentations of the year.



The TV giant finished third in the ratings war with its two big rivals

in each of the past four years. And things haven’t improved in the

current campaign.



In fact, CBS recently cancelled no fewer than eight of its top ten

prime-time shows in an increasingly desperate bid to come up with a

ratings winner that would help close the widening gap on NBC and

ABC.



In the absence of the regular appointment programming of its rivals,

such as Friends, Frasier or Ally McBeal, the network needs sure-fire,

one-off audience winners like the Grammies as a carrot to advertisers,

which it can then ask to support modestly performing regular shows such

as Dr Quinn Medicine Woman.



But this year, for the first time, the Grammies presentation offered one

particular advertiser a little bit more than that. In fact, CBS’s

coverage unmasked for the first time a digitally derived process some

commentators think may lead to the end of the TV ad break in its current

form.



The cause of all this consternation seemed, on the face of it at least,

rather unlikely. It was nothing more elaborate than a standard 30-second

TV ad - for a client called N2K Music Boulevard, one of the largest

electronic music stores in the US. The commercial aired during one of

the lead ad breaks and the majority of viewers would have noticed

nothing untoward.



But the ad had one important difference. It contained additional WebTV

codes, allowing subscribers to the three-year-old, Microsoft-owned

service to view an icon in the right of their screen. If they moved

their cursor to the icon, it brought up a picture-in-picture screen of

the CBS awards broadcast in the lower right of the screen, while the

bulk of their picture was given over to the N2K Music Boulevard’s

Website.



’For the first time, music fans were able to access the Music Boulevard

and the Grammy Guide directly from the broadcast for immediate purchase

of the music they were hearing and seeing on the screen,’ J. J. Rosen,

the president of N2K Entertainment, comments.



The broadcast was, in fact, the first large-scale test of the

interactivity we shall all be taking for granted in the imminent digital

age. It followed on from the decision by WebTV to launch its TV

Crossover Links full interactive programme last September.



For advertisers, TV Crossover Links has been marketed as a device that

allows viewers to interact with both television commercials and online

content simultaneously. It is, as the pack WebTV has sent out in a bid

to lure potential advertisers suggests, nothing less than a new

integrated medium - a sort of combination of direct response, online and

broadcast advertising.



Even allowing for the sales hype, there are already signs that this sort

of interactivity is going to be popular with advertisers. Companies such

as General Motors, Honda, AT&T and Charles Schwab have all already

dipped their toes in some of the company’s standard advertising products

and have welcomed the onset of interactivity.



So far, these companies have restricted their actual tests to

straightforward services such as WebTV’s Video Spots - a series of

15-second broadcast ads that appear to subscribers during the WebTV

start-up process.



’Ads with TV Crossover Links introduce the next generation of direct

response TV,’ Joe Poletto, vice-president of advertising sales at WebTV

Networks, claims. ’These ads enhance broadcast commercials to include

product information, promotions, retail locations and calls-to-action to

which consumers can easily and instantly respond.’



The system has been running for some time on the editorial side, and a

link-up with the makers of the sex ’n’ surf series, Baywatch, in April

this year was the first time interactivity had been brought to a major

series. The behind-the- scenes ’wedding photos’ of David Hasselhoff and

Gena Lee Nolan apparently proved especially alluring to WebTV viewers,

driving subscriptions to the service, which costs dollars 20 a month on

top of the dollars 200 set-top box required to receive the signal.



Unfortunately, UK viewers and advertisers are not going to get these

opportunities just yet, despite an agreement WebTV signed with British

Telecom in March to bring the system to trial over here. But the service

and other digital TV initiatives are now only months away and ad

agencies have already started to assess what the impact of this sort of

initiative might be on the commercial break over here.



’The real worry is that this sort of initiative rips up the model that

we all have of the TV ad break,’ Tim Haywood, a digital media strategist

at HHCL & Partners, points out.



’Even when the service shows a picture-within-picture of what’s

happening on the TV, the danger is that the viewer’s attention will have

switched away either from the rest of the ad break or from the

programming.



’The other danger is that we may only be six months or so away from

having decent quality video available on the Internet - and if TV loses

viewers into that sort of environment, they might not be in a hurry to

return,’ he adds.



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