Advertising is the engine that drives the world's media. Advertisements are everywhere - on billboards in the streets, on buses, before movies, during TV shows, alongside articles in the newspaper, between songs on the radio and on Web sites.
The appeal of advertisements, the fact that they hold you captive and force you to watch, has turned the modern consumer into a prisoner who is endlessly trying to escape. It has reached a peak on the Internet. Dozens of software applications have been created in an attempt to prevent seeing the ads, dubbed banners, on Web sites. When Web masters saw that visitors to their sites were managing to avoid the ads integrated into the site, they invented the pop-up technology that causes another window, devoted entirely to the ad, to appear. It didn't take long for new programs that "kill" pop-ups even before they show their wares to flood the Net.
These programs have been very successful, but every success has its price. Thousands of Web sites that built their business models on advertising were unable to survive and closed down. Now, there's fear in the United States that the "advertisement killers" will make it to the television.
The latest advertisement assassin is called ReplayTV. This wonderful device enables recording dozens of hours of TV programming on a hard disk (as opposed to four hours on a traditional VCR). In addition, the device is equipped with two new tricks. The first enables the user with a weak bladder, watching a live football show, to press a button similar to the pause button on a VCR. While the viewer goes to the bathroom, ReplayTV keeps recording the show. Back from the bathroom, the viewer just pushes the play button to watch the game from where it was paused. In effect, the device makes the concept of "live broadcast" meaningless. Everything's recorded, everything is available, on demand. The viewer controls the broadcasting schedule.
The other trick is particularly horrifying for the TV networks. It enables viewers to press a button that skips 30 second ahead in the recorded broadcast, 30 seconds being the standard block of sold advertising time. Therefore, if a viewer records a show in which there are five minutes of advertising, all they have to do is press the button ten times, and like magic, the ads are gone.
Jamie Kellner, Chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting Systems responded vehemently, saying in an interview to Insider magazine a few weeks ago that using ReplayTV was theft. "Your contract when you get the show is that you're going to watch the spots [advertisements]," said Kellner. "Any time you skip a commercial... you're actually stealing the programming," Kellner is quoted as saying, arguing that the network needs the advertising "so we can create programs." Asked about innocent bathroom-goers, he said: "There's a certain amount of tolerance" for going to the bathroom. Meanwhile, he's filed a suit against the manufacturers of ReplayTV for encouraging copyright violation.
Kellner's apparently correct. The advertising finances the cost of producing TV shows and without the money, the networks would have to ask the viewers to pay directly for every show - Kellner estimates it would be on the order of $250 a year.
ReplayTV's lawyers will argue in court that according to that logic, we're all thieves. When we are late to a movie and don't see the trailers, and when we don't watch an advertisement, it's theft. If we ordered a movie on a pay-per-view basis, and invited guests over to watch, we were accomplices in a crime (the guests didn't pay). When we bought a video for our toddler, and pressed the fast forward button to skip the ad for the diapers, junk food and dairy products, we stole again.
The technology that nullifies the advertising on the Internet and TV is a done deed. Some may argue that after it destroys the Internet, it will destroy TV networks. Others will say that canceling ads will result in them becoming part of the shows, without the viewer being able to distinguish when the comedy begins and the ad for a credit card ends.
Perhaps. What is certain is that whoever thinks the war between the copyright holders - music, film, and TV companies - and the technologists - makers of applications like Napster or devices like ReplayTV - is over, are welcome to lean back and watch. It has just kicked off.
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