EDITORIAL: Here’s how you fix broadcast television, part 1

It’s become almost cliche to say broadcast networks have an advertising problem. People skip commercials. They just do. Unless you’re watching a show live, a lot of the impact of the commercial is lost. And that’s a problem because commercials pay for those shows. If you’re streaming, you might be able to force people to watch, but on broadcast, they’ll zap right through.

First of all, let’s admit that the broadcast networks have a point: If no one watches commercials, there’s really no way to make TV shows without them. Everyone needs to get paid. On the other hand, DISH has a point too… people don’t want to watch commercials and they shouldn’t be forced to. The big problem isn’t the technology, it’s the whole industry. Here’s my advice to the broadcast and advertising industries: Throw away everything you know. All of your theories on program creation, distribution, and funding are based on the way things were done in 1952. Concentrate on creating new metrics and a new industry that makes sense in 2012.

Your TV doesn’t look like this… why does the TV industry act like it does?

Learn from the internet.

25 years ago, when Star Trek: The Next Generation claimed TV would fall out of fashion in the 21st century, no one knew what would replace it. That answer is clear already. The internet is now the way everyone communicates with everyone in every way possible. TV isn’t the king of the hill any more. Here are three lessons that the TV industry can learn from the internet:

Annoying ads lead to less engagement. Ten years ago, there was a much higher number of pop-up, pop-under, flashing, noisy ads on the internet, and they took up a lot more screen space. People stopped visiting sites with annoying ads and favored those like Facebook with subtle, quiet ads. Television people, stop annoying your viewers and you’ll stop using them. Yes, NBC, I’m talking to you. Stop putting more movement in your superimposed ads than there is on the program and I’ll stop turning your shows off.

People will pay for value. Ten years ago the music industry looked forward to collapse because of piracy, and as people got faster internet they started pirating movies too. Today it still happens, but with songs costing a buck, why bother? With $10 a month unlimited viewing on Netflix, why worry about torrents or other video pirating? When the content is priced right people will pay for it.

Video production can be cheap. There is a massive amount of excellent video content online and it cost a tiny fraction of what the broadcast networks pay. The networks are burdened by massive costs for self-important content creators like directors, stars and writers. I don’t care what you do, there comes a point where if you’re making 2 million dollars a week and you’re not curing cancer, that’s just wrong. The broadcast industry is riddled with high-cost productions that aren’t really any better than online videos. Content creators need to look for innovative ways to attract people who know how to do great work on a budget.

Stop quoting advertising theories that don’t make sense.

A long time ago, I took advertising courses. I learned that the pillar of a successful ad campaign was to reach as many people as possible in a memorable way, and that it took at least 5 times before an impression was made. Advertising agencies today somehow take that to mean that you show the same commercial 100 times a day and people will love you.

Yes I get it, bears drink soda and so should I.

That’s just plain stupid. Today “reach” is not a problem. A well-rounded ad campaign can reach billions of people. In the past, commercials have been effective because people had to watch them. Today, they don’t. Sports programming aside, there’s no benefit to watching live; even with reality competition shows, you can catch up on a half-hour comedy first, join the show in progress and still finish in time to vote. Advertisers, if you want to “reach” your audience then stop insulting them with stupid, tired ideas. Be interesting and innovative.

Frequency used to mean showing the same commercial over and over. Unfortunately, it still does. Yet, commercials are cheaper than ever to produce. Why not come up with 50 different ones that still pass along the same message? I become incredibly annoyed when I see the same commercial three times an hour. I can’t be the only one. Create ads that actually engage people and they will actively watch!

The bottom line: stop treating your potential customers like criminals or psychological test subjects. Stop doing things the way you’ve always done them. Throw away the textbooks. Pretend TV is a new medium and you have to figure it all out again.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.