Ian Trombley, exec VP-media distribution services for NBC Universal, said he has seen a Nike commercial air on an unnamed broadcast network with exactly the defect described above. "That's something we want to prevent," he said.
The shapes of screens to come
Marketers are already scrambling to figure out how best to adjust their 30-second TV spots for viewing via the web and on iPod screens. But as the nation prepares for the big shift from analog to digital TV on Feb. 17 next year, what could be a major conundrum has opened up for advertisers who love to make use of the wider high-definition screen.
While "standard definition" -- read "old-fashioned" -- TV sets have for decades featured a 4:3 screen-size proportion, high-definition sets and the programming created for them have a much more rectangular 16:9 scope. Thus, ads crafted for high-definition broadcasts that show up on standard-definition sets could have their right and left sides digitally sliced off.
Cries of concern are already surfacing in certain corners of the ad business, particular the creative side. "You work really hard to make the film look beautiful within the frame, and then somebody changes the frame on you," said Andy Langer, chief creative officer at Omnicom Group's Roberts & Tarlow agency. "They won't look as good, and they may not be as effective," he added.
The move to digital frees up frequency for wireless broadband, not to mention police and fire communications. It also allows broadcasters to offer more high-definition programming and additional channels of content. But it also creates the potential for an "ad squeeze": Many living rooms, basements and bedrooms will still contain the older TV sets that aren't capable of showing high-definition ads in all their glory. Of the nation's approximately 113 million TV households, only 46 million have sets capable of receiving high-def content, a number that is expected to grow to only 55 million by the end of 2009, according to Forrester Research.
Vital info cut out
According to the Association of National Advertisers, a CBS survey of 800 high-definition commercials found that 50 of them, or 6%, lost vital information on the left and right sides when viewed on standard-definition TVs. That number is quite small, to be sure, although when one considers that a 30-second spot on CBS's most-expensive program, "CSI," cost around $248,000 last season, the money starts to add up.
The solution, which networks, agency executives and marketers agree is only a short-term one, is to rely on a process known as "center cut protection." This moves words, images and graphic overlays toward the center of a commercial, so important legalese in a pharmaceutical ad can be read in full, or a competitive claim by one toothpaste maker about another isn't truncated into a phrase that hasn't been vetted by lawyers. The shift is bound to render ads for beauty products less enticing, suggested Mr. Langer, because they often depend on a pretty face or celebrity touting the newest cosmetic, cream or skin-care lotion.
Viewers will still be able to see the ads on the old standard-format sets -- just with graphics and overlays shifted toward the middle. Those who already have high-definition service may have noticed this phenomenon when comparing their high-def channels with their standard-broadcast counterparts.
Wide-screen ads can also be "letterboxed," or shrunken, so that their full width can be viewed, but with dark bands across the top and bottom. The downside is that on some TVs, the commercial looks more like what some call a "postage stamp," or "a box within a box."
Until marketers and networks figure things out more definitively, advertisers face the "loss of a good piece of real estate on the left and the right," said Laurence Grunberg, manager-commercial production at Clorox Co. The reductions in space will be missed by more than just viewers, he said. "It's tough to tell senior people in an organization that part of their image is going to go away. It's tough to tell the agency and to tell their creative folks that part of the image is disposable."
What about logos?
All sorts of other issues will need careful study as well. When networks take a standard-broadcast feed -- say of a college basketball game -- they often run a shrunken picture of the event on the high-def screen, complete with colorful network logos on the right and left sides of the picture. Could these banners distract from advertisements?
When it comes to the main concern bubbling up in the process, however, there's little that can be done at present. Marketers will likely have to construct an ad that can work in both TV-screen milieus. Networks simply aren't going to be able to take ads in different formats -- one for high-def and one for standard, said Bryan Burns, VP-strategic planning and development at ESPN. "Nearly all of us are going to use one control room to operate both a standard-definition and a high-definition network at the same time. Programming and commercials for the most part have to be produced in a way that can be used for both."
Meanwhile, NBC Universal is backing a technology known as "active format description" that, when embedded in various broadcast equipment, essentially acts as a flag that tells systems how to show an ad or program "depending on what the intent for the content" is, Mr. Trombley said. He feels the idea is "gaining traction," but noted resolution of the on-screen issues advertisers currently wrestle with is probably "a couple of years away."