DIGITAL TV: The death of the Ad Break - Hotspots. Pop-ups. Click here. Digital TV will change the way viewers interact with commercials, but not just yet. Ian Johnson investigates

It seems that only a specialised few in the ad industry have first-hand knowledge of how digital interactive television might affect TV commercials as we know them. And those in the know believe we are likely to see a fundamental change to advertising. With British Interactive Broadcasting gearing up and ONdigital looking to offer basic e-mail services by the middle of next year, that change is on our doorstep.

It seems that only a specialised few in the ad industry have

first-hand knowledge of how digital interactive television might affect

TV commercials as we know them. And those in the know believe we are

likely to see a fundamental change to advertising. With British

Interactive Broadcasting gearing up and ONdigital looking to offer basic

e-mail services by the middle of next year, that change is on our

doorstep.



Linking from an ad to order a brochure or catalogue, get a product

demonstration, access interactive services such as home shopping and

banking, and linking to a website and teletext page will all be possible

on our screens next year.



We will have information ’pop-ups’ - hypertext pages of information

linked from an ad - buttons and other interactive hotspots which all do

something when pressed.



The chief way this could affect the TV break in its traditional form is

when ads encourage viewers to migrate to a home shopping site or

internet page, thus missing the subsequent commercials or even the next

programme.



Alan McCulloch, the commercial director of Saatchi & Saatchi Vision,

sums up the dilemma: ’Clearly, broadcasters will not want to divert

viewers away from traditional programmes. They will also not want to

lose new revenue opportunities.’



The French television stations, Canal+ and TPS, are already tackling

this problem in their digital broadcasts. Regis Saint Girons, the

vice-president and general manager of Open TV Europe (the provider of

software for TPS and BiB), explains that the TPS interactive trial

allowed the interactive ad to be positioned anywhere in the break. When

a request for further information was made by the viewer, this was

logged. Then, at the end of the break, the request was acted upon, which

meant that the viewer didn’t miss any subsequent ads.



Saint Girons does, however, concede that ’real time is preferred by the

user’. He describes a second option: to reduce the video background to a

quarter-size screen so that you don’t end up losing contact with the TV

screen.



By contrast, the solution adopted by Canal+ is to put interactive ads at

the end of the break. ’This avoids the confusion of bypassing other

ads,’ according to Remi Collard, the director of Thamatiques Rejie. He

adds: ’We can’t make an interactive solicitation at every break.’



But even if these solutions are workable, will we be talking about

’advertisements’ at all? ’The arrival of digital is the start of a new

media form, a new industry,’ Marcus Vinton, the creative director of

Ogilvy & Mather, says.



Many believe we are actually dealing with infomercials. Instead of a

30-second slot, we are likely to have ten-minute promotional films. This

will be more suitable for certain products, such as white goods and

consumer durables, where a purchase is made every five years or so. ’A

click-through on the ad demonstrates the product in action. Viewers will

be able to have demonstrations of leading brands, each highlighting the

main benefits of their product,’ Ken Helps, the managing director of

Cabot Software, says.



The potential to change the shape of the ad break most definitely

exists, but there are stumbling blocks. There are technological problems

such as dealing with the fact that websites are not yet designed to deal

with TV display.



Andrew Curry, the head of interactivity at Cable & Wireless

Communications, says that CWC’s concerns are mainly operational. ’The

last thing we want is for viewers to migrate to the internet only to

realise they have missed an important point in the film plot they were

watching. We may require a reminder on the screen, something to remind

the viewer that the programming has started.’



But there is also the very different attitude that the consumer has to

using the web and using TV. ’Asking the viewer to make a distinction may

be very difficult. People are used to having information fed to them on

a TV.



The web requires the viewer to interact,’ Collard explains. Regis

agrees: ’Our experience indicates that most websites do not apply well

to the TV.’



Most believe that, whatever happens, there will be a large difference in

the emotional interpretation of the interactive ad compared with the

traditional commercial.



Jane Ostler, a managing partner at MindShare Digital, emphasises that

’creativity is still important. The challenge for the advertiser is to

retain the integrity of the brand. It becomes important to retain

consistency across all new media. How they will work together is the

challenge.’



One of the most significant effects on the break may be sound. ’When you

are navigating the web, you are used to going through sites without

sound. On the TV you are used to hearing sound. When designing the

interactive applications we need to consider the whole creative

environment,’ Ostler says. Open TV has recognised this issue in its TPS

trial. ’There will be sounds like in the TV ad. In one interactive

commercial we had sounds in the background. Our customers are also

putting sounds on their site,’ Saint Girons says.



In addition to sound, Collard sees the actual interactive proposition

itself as crucial. ’To say ’If you want to know more, click here’ is

just not good enough. Interactive advertising must be based around a

clear offer. ’If you want to try this, click here’ is a better

statement.’



But the very first thing that must take place before advertising in the

UK changes is for clients and agencies to climb a steep learning

curve.



According to McCulloch, ’There is not a high level of awareness of what

opportunities lie within the interactive field. Broadcasters really have

not outlined what type of relationship will be established. Most

projects are on an individual basis, no standard route for an

interactive commercial has been established.’



Will interactive advertising create a significant revenue stream for UK

ad agencies? Judging from the examples in France, expenditure on

interactive advertising will rise rapidly - whatever form it takes.

Saint Girons outlines an example from Open TV: ’We placed an interactive

ad for a ski catalogue on the weather report and gained ten times more

requests from the TV compared with the web. The ski commercial generated

1,000 calls when it ran on a digital channel with 200,000

subscribers.’



Canal+ is also experiencing success. ’Our first interactive ad was with

Audi. We had 2,500 click names of clients and sold nearly 150 cars from

a two-week period. Over this time, the interactive commercial was shown

on two channels. The price of the commercial came to pounds 50,000,’

Collard says.



It could be argued that the advertising task in the future will become

much harder, with viewers zapping through hundreds of channels and

generally being more elusive. Another, more optimistic, view is that

advertising will successfully adapt to make the most of the new

technology - ensuring that only relevant advertising is sent to, or made

available to be selected by, the most receptive audience.



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