A Brief History of Ad Skipping

With all of the hoopla over Dish’s Auto Hop feature, it seemed like a good time to review the history of ad skipping. If all you had was this week’s news, you might think that ad skipping was an entirely new idea. However, as we’ll see, it’s an idea as old as ads themselves, although it has gotten measurably easier.

Early civilization

The image at left may be the world’s first advertisement. It is on a stone wall in Ephesus, Turkey, and it may date from the fifth century. If the research is to be believed, it directed people to a brothel. Sex sells, although the fact that this is an image of a foot rather than something more obvious makes one wonder exactly how sex comes into play in this particular case. Perhaps that’s not a topic for a family-friendly blog post.

If this is the oldest ad, then it follows that it is subject to the oldest form of ad skipping. Suppose you are a 5th-century Ephesian and you don’t like ads. You have a simple choice… just look the other way. Bingo, ad skipped, end of discussion. Of course you were probably walking at the time so there was some danger that you would collide with someone or crash into a wall. And you know, there was probably a 5th century blogger ready to write FAIL in Turkish on your tunic when you fell.

Printed advertising

If ads looked like this one from the 18th century, I’d probably want to skip them too. That’s a pretty boring ad there. Printing using movable type came to Europe around 1439 when Johannes Gensfleisch took a wine press and adapted it for printing. (You might know him as Gutenberg. That’s because Gensfleisch is German for “goose pimples” and I don’t blame Herr Gensfleisch for wanting to change it.)

It didn’t take long for advertising to come to the world of printing. It was a natural progression because then as now, producing content cost money. Reproducing drawings on a printing press cost a whole lot more money, which is why advertisements looked like the one at left. They probably took a long time to read and weren’t incredibly successful. So, avid ad-skippers just turned the page and I don’t know that there was a lot of outrage about people flipping past the ads. It makes me wonder what would have happened if some 18th-century merchant had decided to cut ads out of books and sell them. Would Ye Olde Columbia Broadcasting System have said it was illegal?

Later on, newspaper advertising came along and ad skippers had a whole new way to avoid looking at ads: they just threw the newspaper away.

Early Television

Ah, this must have been the golden age for television networks. Imagine it’s 1960 and you’re the head of CBS. Most Americans got three or four channels and yours was one of them! You could point a camera at a fireplace and get good ratings. If people wanted to skip past commercials, they had to actually get up and leave the room, or at the very least someone needed to go over to the TV and turn the volume way down. Oh, the power that you’d have! No ad skipping for you… we’re going to FORCE you to sit there and WATCH those commercials! Of course, a lot of people not only skipped the commercials, they skipped a minute or two of the show as well, because they got up and left the room to do whatever it was people did before they had smartphones. I don’t honestly remember what that was.

And then came…

Look at this thing. It’s as big as a house. It looks like you could use it as a stepladder. If you’re under 30 you might not even recognize one of these… kids it was called a VCR and it changed the game in ways that no one could anticipate.

Before the VCR all TV was consumed live. You had to be there to watch it. This must have been an incredible drag and when VCRs came out, people shelled out $1,000 per for them. Keep in mind, you could get a very decent luxury car for $6k at that time.

It wasn’t easy but it was possible to set up programs to record on a timer, and then watch them later. And… if you had a remote control… get this… you could actually fast forward past the ads!

The broadcast industry blew a gasket. Seriously. Not only did they think ad skipping was bad, they were against the entire idea of recording and one case got all the way to the Supreme Court. Lucky for us in the 21st century the decision went Sony’s way because otherwise there would be no home recording. (Lucky for me because otherwise I’d probably be writing about grain futures.)

Ad skipping wasn’t easy though, because with early VCRs it was pretty hard to see anything while you were fast-forwarding. If you were lucky you got two or three heavy bands of static on the screen; if you weren’t lucky the screen went black. There were some devices that tried to help you automatically skip through commercials but they were sort of touch-and-go things; they relied on a variety of methods that were not guaranteed to find commercials. They enjoyed some popularity overseas but never caught on in the US.

Enter the DVR

By now everyone knows about the DVR but in 1999 this was revolutionary technology. Back then there were two major contenders: TiVo and ReplayTV. TiVos didn’t let you skip ads, ReplayTVs did. With a TiVo you could program it to skip forward 30 seconds but that was about all you could do. On the other hand ReplayTV did a pretty good job of skipping commercials instantly. The result was, TiVo is still around and ReplayTV got sued all the way to bankruptcy court. DIRECTV, which bought the ReplayTV ad-skipping technology at a discount, hasn’t used it.

Ad skipping is a much easier proposition on a DVR because it records to a hard disk instead of a tape. All you have to do is skip forward in measured implements and look for some sort of digital sign that the commercials have ended. It may be hard for a human but it turns out, for a computer it’s not that tough. It’s almost instant and quite reliable… or at least it was until the company went out of business.

The quiet contender: Home Theatre PCs.

Built into most Windows PC is a program called Windows Media Center that allows you to record and playback TV. Similar other systems exist for the even braver, like MythTV. Because these programs are part of general-purpose computers, there are plenty of ad-skipping programs that process recorded programs and take commercials out.

Of course, home theatre PCs are pretty rare, because they take a lot of setup, they’re often more expensive, and most folks just want to sit down and watch TV instead of dealing with twenty or so Windows Updates every Tuesday. So, the major networks haven’t paid a lot of attention to Windows Media Center or other home theatre PC programs, because they’re just too far out of the mainstream.

May 10, 2012

At its Team Summit dealer conference, DISH announces that its Hopper DVRs will let you skip past commercials automatically in primetime programming, provided you wait until after 1AM on the day the recordings took place. Commercial skipping is automatic and nearly instant… and so is the backlash. Major networks, who get an increasingly large share of their revenue from commercials, blew a collective gasket.

The history of ad-skipping isn’t over yet. There may yet be lawsuits filed, just like the Betamax case in the 1970s. We’ll see how it all turns out. In the meantime, if you have a Hopper, sit back and enjoy an hour-long program in 44 minutes without touching the remote!