OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

Zipping and zapping and skipping, oh my!

No, that's not a line from the script for the remake of The Wizard of Oz, but a succinct summary of the worries of Madison Avenue as the start of another television season nears. Though in the "upfront market to buy commercial time before the 2002 to 2003 TV shows debut on the national broadcast and cable networks, agencies agreed to spend around $13 billion (a record sum), they're concerned as never before whether viewers actually ever will watch any of the spots that run in the slots they spent so much to reserve.

That's because of the increasing penchant among Americans for zipping, which is fast-forwarding through a programme taped on a VCR to avoid the commercials; zapping, which is using the remote control to change channels the moment a commercial break begins; and skipping, which is advancing through the spots in a show as it's played back on a PVR, or personal video recorder, such as TiVo.

When owners of PVRs were asked in a recent survey if they skip, the trade publication Advertising Age reported, a stunning 72.3 per cent said "yes". That figure approached 100 per cent in big, important ad categories including fast food and credit cards.

(One consolation: almost two-thirds said they still watch beer commercials.)

Indeed, Jamie Kellner, the chief executive of the Turner Broadcasting System division of AOL Time Warner, warned that channels now received free may one day cost each US household with a television set as much as $250 a year to watch if viewers insist on dodging the sponsors' pitches.

The solution? More and more, the networks are becoming amenable to the notion of product placement, integrating the sales spiel into the programming in some manner to try making the commercials zip-, zap- or skip-proof.

It's a back-to-the-future strategy because in the early days of American TV, when agencies owned the programmes and arranged for their clients to buy all the commercial time, peddling was often an intrinsic part of the shows, whether in the titles (Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Bell Telephone Hour) or the plots, when such stars as Jack Benny and George Burns would pause in mid-skit to plug sponsors' products.

Les Moonves, who oversees the CBS and UPN networks for Viacom, told television critics previewing his networks' fall offerings that product placements may be a solution for the time when gadget-loving Americans adopt PVRs the way they have VCRs, satellite dishes and DVD players.

But Moonves made it clear he's still determining the difference between a placement that fits the show - and will be accepted by viewers - and one that oversteps the acceptable boundary between entertaining and huckstering.

Placements seem to mesh more with reality shows such as Survivor, Moonves said, than in scripted series, but if placements eventually turn up in the latter, they most likely would appear in comedies such as Everybody Loves Raymond before dramas such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Or as Moonves put it, according to Ed Martin, who covered the critics' meeting for the Jack Myers Report newsletter: "We do not want Buffy eating M&M's."

In other words, it's really going to be difficult to figure out right from wrong because, as any vampire slayer would tell you, there's a lot at stake.

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