Ad-stripping software goes further than PVRs

LONDON - First it was PVRs, now it's software that excises ads from TV shows. Can the 30-second spot survive?

Ad-stripping software goes further than PVRs

Just when brands thought it was safe to go back to the 30-second spot ad, a US company called VideoReDo has released TV Suite, the latest incarnation of a software system that can strip commercials from television and movie content.

For $75 (£37), VideoReDo claims TV Suite can 'cut to the good parts of TV'. And, judging by the various blog threads on the subject, it's easy to use. All the user has to do is download video onto a PC or Mac and burn it onto a DVD using the software.

The question for marketers, of course, is whether this technology is a gimmick for geeks or a bona fide threat to the way brands do business.

VideoReDo says TV Suite is useful for people who want to watch TV on their PCs, since they can 'remove offensive video (often a commercial)'.

This proposition sounds ominous. It goes a stage further than PVR-style ad- skipping by eradicating commercials altogether. Suddenly all the comforting research about PVR owners using sponsorship credits as a gateway back in to shows or still absorbing commercial messages as they fast-forward through breaks starts to look obsolete.

David Fletcher, head of Mediaedge:cia's MediaLab, is not convinced that the industry is heading for advertising Armageddon. 'This might be of use if you are travelling abroad and want to take some shows with you, or if you have a film your children watch repeatedly. But we're not looking at a mainstream assault on spot advertising,' he says.

His main reason for taking this line is a deep-rooted faith in consumer inertia. 'Most of us watch TV to sit back and relax. This seems like a lot of effort to avoid ads when the option to make a cup of tea, zap ads or fast-forward through them is already there.'

Support for Fletcher's position comes from Channel 4 head of strategic sales Mike Parker. He points out that 85% of viewing in PVR homes is live, which suggests ad avoidance is not the main consideration. 'What attracts people is time-shifting programmes to more convenient times.'

This does not mean broadcasters are complacent about ad skipping, according to Parker. 'We've been doing a number of things to minimise the impact of ad avoidance,' he says. 'We're placing more emphasis on event TV to encourage a sense of excitement, and our recent food season was designed to create the kind of buzz that makes people want to discuss shows with friends.'

Another major task for Parker is to make ad breaks more engaging. This can be achieved either by linking editorial to breaks, such as incentivising the viewer by offering the chance to win a prize if they watch the ads, or creating an inherent point of interest.

'We've run breaks focused on environmental products in an environmental season such as Dumped,' says Parker. 'And we're exploring the idea of a break made up entirely of new entertainment releases as a way of hooking in viewers. One positive thing to emerge from the ad-skipping debate is that everyone is focusing more clearly on ad creativity.'

Broadcasters in general are turning their attentions to ways to limit ad-skipping. Remedies range from ad-avoidance-disabling technology to tougher copyright controls and business models that carry a pricing or promotional incentive for viewing spot ads.

Parker even believes that time-shifted channels are part of the solution. They give viewers flexible start times without the need to turn to PVRs or other ad-avoiding technologies such as Windows MediaCenter, which can be configured to jump entire ad breaks.

Vizeum managing partner Ben Wood agrees that the spot ad is not under any immediate threat from VideoReDo, but adds that it would be naive to write TV Suite off as geek technology.

'The lesson that we have learned from the iPod and YouTube is that digital developments gain traction quickly if the proposition is right. I think we will start seeing decent usage numbers for TV viewing on the PC in 2008, thanks to Google, Kangaroo TV and BBC iPlayer.'

Broader trends confirm Wood's view. With companies such as TiVo and Microsoft promoting PC/TV convergence, US analysis firm Instat is predicting there will be 50.8m PC-TV tuners in global circulation by 2011.

This forecast does not faze Wood, who views VideoReDo's threat to interruptive media as an exciting challenge. 'The message for the industry is to make sure you are ready for change,' he says. 'Smart brands are already looking for ways to improve consumer engagement. Take a campaign like Cadbury's Gorilla, which was so entertaining that it had people actively seeking it out via YouTube.'

In terms of VideoReDo's potential impact by genre, live sport and shows such as The X Factor would be relatively unaffected. But the temptation to wipe commercials out of drama, movies, comedy and documentaries would undoubtedly be greater.

Wood fully expects the industry to find solutions. 'I don't see how this technology could scalpel out a highly-integrated sponsorship credit or a semi-transparent ad overlay on a programme,' he says. 'The emphasis undoubtedly shifts more toward brands being entertaining and getting closer to content.'

There's an interesting irony here: if viewers strip out ads, regulators will be forced to rubber-stamp greater commercial encroachment into editorial streams, such as product placement or branded content, since taxation and subscription are also under pressure as forms of TV funding.

Efforts to avoid ads may therefore have the reverse effect, encouraging advertisers to take a more aggressive approach. Ambient media, telemarketing and internet-based communications are all examples of how invasive clients can become in pursuit of prey. But C4's Parker seems relatively confident it won't come to that. 'Regulators want a healthy ad-supported component to TV funding. I don't think they would stand by and watch spot ads disappear.'