Personal video recorders: threat or promise?

Does the advent of the PVR signal the impending death of the 30-second television commercial, arguably the foundation of the advertising business as we know it? Or, as some industry leaders suggest, is the PVR no more significant than the arrival of the VCR (which was also accompanied by doomsday proclamations)?

Does the advent of the PVR signal the impending death of the 30-second television commercial, arguably the foundation of the advertising business as we know it? Or, as some industry leaders suggest, is the PVR no more significant than the arrival of the VCR (which was also accompanied by doomsday proclamations)?

At Media Experts’ iTV lab we have been studying PVRs and their impact on viewing behaviour for the past six months. Its impact is both overestimated in terms of its effect on commercial avoidance and underestimated in terms of its effect on viewing habits.

PVRs create an all new world when prime time is anytime and appointment viewing is a thing of the past; the viewer creates his or her own channels filled with customized content, such as the Clint Eastwood channel or, my personal favourite, the Formula One channel.

Convenience and control will mean more television viewing, and therefore more potential for commercial exposure, not less. Sure, commercials will be skipped, but would those commercials have been seen if the viewer hadn’t time shifted the program to allow for convenient viewing, anyway?

Commercial avoidance is already a reality, as high as 60%, depending on whose view you subscribe to. And in spite of this reality, TV advertising is the most powerful advertising medium known to man, capable of making us laugh, making us cry and electing George W. Bush.

So consider that the most desired and elusive advertiser demographics watch less TV because they are highly mobile and just plain too busy. Now, allow these prospects to ‘time shift’ their favourite TV shows and watch more TV when they want it, and we’ll have more opportunities for commercial exposure. So while we may loose some of those new exposures to the PVR’s fast-forward capability, the net result will be positive. A much more powerful medium with a much more attractive audience.

For years we’ve heard the argument that better creative will offset zipping. Great advertising, effective advertising is, above all else, relevant. As we move forward, these new boxes will gain the intelligence to choose commercials most relevant to each viewer.

The first application of this revolution has been quietly executed by BMW in 30-second spots that direct viewers to the Internet, where they can log on to www.bmwfilms.com. If viewers have a PC with the right plug-ins, the right players and a broadband connection, they can watch a series of chase films called ‘The Hire Film Series’ involving Beemers driven to extreme from renowned directors like John Frankenheimer and Guy Ritchie. What they achieve is a brand experience, an emotional connection far beyond the potential of a 30-second TV spot.

At the Media Experts iTV lab our recording of the Grand Prix of Monaco (automatically sourced and recorded by our Tivo PVR) included what seemed like just another BMW spot directing viewers to bmwfilms.com. But we were treated to a different opportunity; we saw a press-to-select icon in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. Pressing select offered the ability to record the entire film series on to your PVR in one simple click.

The near equivalent Internet experience requires the downloading of a 7MB player and five six-minute films, each 77MB in size, for a total file size of 469MB, nearly half a gigabyte! At the highest residentially available download speeds, this would require at least an hour-and-a-half to download before viewing and as many as 13 hours with a dial-up connection, or a highly pixelated image in real time.

The PVR, on the other hand, creates an instantaneous, user-friendly bridge to the richest media content delivered to your living room when you want it.

This historic moment in television has gone by with little fanfare or publicity. But make no mistake. PVRs and the storage capabilities they offer will reshape the media scene in ways more dramatic and revolutionary than anything we’ve seen to date, dwarfing even the Internet.

Oh, and if you’re interested, our Tivo, correctly configured with the touch of a button to record ‘The Hire Film Series,’ in fact recorded an infomercial for Ab-busters.

As we move into the fantastic world of iTV, one thing that will remain constant is Murphy’s law…Given the greater interdependencies of systems, the greater the likelihood that one or more of those systems will fail.’

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Mark Sherman is president and CEO of Media Experts, a media planning and buying company based in Toronto and Montreal. He can be reached at MARKS@MediaExperts.com.