TiVo Zaps Spots for Its Commercial-Killing Gizmo Bolt

Low-Key Bolt Launch Keeps Ad-Skip Button Under Wraps

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Tivo's 'Premature Playage' commercial appears to have aired on TV exactly one time.
Tivo's 'Premature Playage' commercial appears to have aired on TV exactly one time. Credit: Courtesy Tivo Inc. via YouTube

One of the key selling points of the new TiVo Bolt is how the sleek little DVR-on-smart-drugs allows users to zap through entire commercial pods at the push of a button. Naturally, TV networks aren't at all enthused about this development, which might explain why the two TiVo commercials that specifically address Bolt's ad-skipping feature have disappeared almost as soon as they arrived.

The first Bolt ad to focus entirely on the advanced ad-zapping functionality was a 15-second spot that aired in the third quarter of NFL Network's telecast of the Nov. 12 Bills-Jets game. Running a few weeks after TiVo first rolled out its new entertainment platform, the "Here Come the Commercials" spot was seen by approximately 8 million viewers. The ad, which features a couple engaging in commercial interruptus, closes with a wholly unambiguous tag line: "The all-new TiVo Bolt. Skip entire commercials with a press of a button."

"Here Come the Commercials" popped up one last time before going inactive, appearing in the second quarter of NFL Net's Dec. 10 Vikings-Cardinals telecast.

A second ad that explicitly sings the praises of ad avoidance aired just once before it too disappeared. The 30-second "Do You Suffer From Premature Playage?" aired during that same Vikings-Cards game, approximately a half-hour before "Here Come the Commercials." It hasn't appeared on a national TV broadcast since.

"Premature Playage" is more or less the Platonic Ideal of overwrought marketing, trotting out a faux physician, wailing infant, emasculating wife, surly goth teen and a debilitating shot to the groin of the paterfamilias in the space of its brief run. The upshot of this ad is that people who try to fast-forward through commercial pods with their traditional DVRs tend to overshoot the last spot, thereby impinging on the programming they actually want to watch. The phony doc's prescription? Skip the pods seamlessly with TiVo Bolt.

Oddly enough, TiVo's exhortation to surgically excise TV ads is nowhere to be found in its extant Bolt spot, which is titled "It Eats Commercials." Essentially a 30-second series of glam shots (the snow-white Bolt looks like a piece of body armor that fell off a Stormtrooper), "It Eats Commercials" never once so much as hints at any such thing.

A TiVo representative did not respond to a request for comment.

According to iSpot.tv estimates, "It Eats Commercials" is doing all the heavy lifting for TiVo, having aired 229 times since it bowed back on Oct. 5. The company has shelled out around $870,000 for all that inventory, although the dollars appear to be drying up; per iSpot, the last paid-for airing was on Dec. 17, during the Rockets-Lakers game on TNT.

Even without any overt nods to commercial avoidance, the networks haven't exactly fallen all over themselves in their haste to air the "It Eats Commercials" spot. In the three months it has been in circulation, the TiVo ad has appeared only on TNT, Pac-12 Network and NBA TV. "It Eats Commercials" has aired exclusively in live NBA games and shoulder programming, as well as in Pac-12 college football telecasts.

While most ad-supported networks are likely to steer clear of future Bolt spots, the brand's sports-heavy TV buy also makes a good deal of sense. For one thing, the fact that sports are almost exclusively watched live eliminates much of the ad avoidance that plagues time-shifted programming.

But with Bolt, as it happens, sports is bulletproof. Tivo's new skip function doesn't work on pre-recorded sports programming, so anyone looking to scoot through a time-shifted game won't be able to zap through the commercial pods.

The limitations of the device are not inconsiderable. At present, skip mode is available for shows recorded from just 20 network feeds, a roster that includes the Big Five broadcasters as well as cable heavyweights like AMC, Comedy Central, Discovery Channel, FX, TBS, TNT and USA Network. TiVo's new skip function also doesn't work on recorded sports programming, so anyone looking to scoot through a time-shifted game won't be able to zap through the commercial pods.

During a recent appearance on CNBC's "Squawk Box," outgoing TiVo CEO Tom Rogers denied that Bolt was a commercial killer, even though it is (stealthily) being marketed as such. "We know, with DVR behavior, people still watch a lot of commercials even though they have the ability to fast-forward," he said. "We know, even with this, they'll still get a lot of commercials coming through."

That the networks haven't gone on the offensive against Bolt may well be a function of the company's relatively limited impact on the overall TV ecosystem. Per its most recent 10-Q filing with the FCC, TiVo reported that it serves 6.47 million subscribers, a tally that includes 952,000 customers who own their own units and 5.52 million who rent a box from their cable operator. And while that marks a 26% increase from the year-ago period, TiVo's sub base represents just 6% of the 116.4 million U.S. TV households.

Broadcasters were far more proactive four years ago, after Dish Network introduced the Hopper at the 2012 CES. That spring, the Big Four nets filed suit to block the disruptive service, and while settlements have been reached with three broadcasters, Fox's legal action is still pending. At the time the suits were filed, Dish had 14.1 million subs, reaching 12% of all TV homes.

Dish this week unveiled the Hopper 3 at CES.

If it seems counterintuitive for ad-supportive networks to allow disruptive technologies to promote their wares on their air, executives say that money often trumps ideology. "Retweets are not endorsements, and neither is my decision to take money from someone who may or may not be trying to put me out of business," cracked one senior ad sales exec. "We let Netflix advertise all the time, and if you listen to Reed Hastings, they're going to kill us all in the next five years."

Netflix has spent $5.79 million on national TV since the 2015-16 broadcast season began back in September.

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