Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Call it poetic justice. About a year ago, when digital video recording pioneers TiVo and RelayTV introduced their media-bending products, the end seemed nigh for the 30-second TV spot. Prime time would soon be obsolete. Maybe someday, but not yet-only 300,000 to 400,000 have been sold.

Consumers, usually so susceptible to the siren song of self-empowerment, have been put off by the DVR’s expense and complexity, while retail support has been inept. And then there’s the sticky problem of advertising.

It seems the DVR’s benefits defy easy, compelling explanation in

30 seconds, despite Goodby, Silverstein & Partners’ ads for TiVo. Unfortunately, like most new technology, a DVR is something you only know you want after you’ve used it. Thus, a technology which promises to end TV advertising as we know it languishes, in part, due to the lack of effective television commercials. There’s a moral in there somewhere.

DVRs promise to make ineffective TV spots everyone’s problem. No one should be lulled into complacency by its slow start. The technology, which among other things, offers the ability to program one’s personal live-action pauses and push-button commercial zapping, is showing up in set-top boxes from hardware makers and cable companies-and it’s being built into TVs. Clearly, it’s only a matter of time before DVRs stand between marketers and viewers in America’s living rooms.

For advertisers, it promises to be worse than viewers simply zapping recorded commercials, although that’s bad enough. On Ultimate TV, Microsoft’s marriage of satellite and computer, an ad-phobic viewer can check his e-mail during a commercial pod. Or, he can watch two ads on two different channels at once-not ideal conditions for promoting recall.

Of course, the 30-second commercial has been ailing for a long time, ever since viewers got their hands on a channel zapper and 60 and counting channels to choose from.

The truth is that in this era of exploding ad venues-everything from banana skins to dry cleaner hangers to ad-supported broadcasts on public transportation-traditional TV spots have become the easiest form of advertising for consumers to avoid.

For marketers, the great miracle of broadcast, both radio and TV,has always been its unprecedented ability to deliver marketing messages to the heart of the home. Ironically, today the home is one of the few places-perhaps the only place-where consumers, if they choose, can keep marketers out.

Consider my recent experience at a Manhattan multiplex. On the way to purchase my ticket, I watch a bank of screens showing scenes and promos for current attractions. The PA system pipes in ads for movie soundtracks. By the concession stand there are more promo-filled TVs, while inside the theater, the screen flashes with washed-out slides touting local spaghetti joints and neighborhood opticians. Finally, the lights dim and a few product commercials are shown, followed by 15-minutes worth of movie trailers. By the time the feature begins, I’ve been in the theater 30 minutes, and every second-save for a bathroom break-has been filled by a product pitch.

What a relief it would be to come home to a DVR, kick back and watch the programs of one’s choice without any commercials intruding-much like the experience we once enjoyed at the movies. Meantime, the cinema, where advertising was limited to lobby cards not long ago, now offers that captive-viewer feeling once associated with television.

How did the movie theater and living-room TV change places? It began with the remote control. The easier it’s become to avoid TV commercials-and it’s pretty easy-the more advertising has migrated to venues and media where it cannot possibly be avoided. Schools. Airport lounges. Restaurant bathrooms. Municipal stadiums.

Safe to say, we ain’t seen nothing yet. As DVRs spread, advertisers will concentrate on making TV ads unavoidable. Some in the industry are putting their money on the resurrection of sponsorships, which has been predicted for the last 10 years.

Product placement, virtual and otherwise, can expect a big-budget infusion. In addition, there will be ads where they never were before: on electronic program guides, attached to time-shifted programming and even stored on DVR hard drives.

DVRs may let viewers escape commercials, but it won’t stop the saturation. Today’s ad zappers may one day yearn for the era when all they longed to avoid was a 30-second TV spot.