Just a midwinter day dream? TiVo a boon for the TV nets

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Speaking at our Madison + Vine conference in Los Angeles last week, Jamie Kellner, chairman-CEO of Turner Broadcasting System, predicted that TiVo will bring down the entire economic structure of commercial TV-not to mention all of American business.

My take is quite the opposite: If TiVo didn't exist, the TV networks would have to invent it. The ad-skipping mechanism, I boldly predict, will be the best thing that ever happened to the networks.

The TV folks are alarmed that the 30-second commercial is in danger of imminent demise because viewers will fast-forward past the spots when they record programs on TiVo for future viewing. So now TV has opened up a whole new revenue stream from product placements within the shows, and is touting placements as the only way to insure advertisers' products will still be seen on TV.

Never mind that TiVo is being used by a miniscule number of people. Does anyone really, truly think there's enough must-see TV out there to compel viewers to record shows for later playback? Or that viewers will instruct their TiVos to search out old Bogart movies so they can enjoy their very own film fests? The numbers show that viewers like to graze among many programs, as evidenced by the fact that some programs pick up millions of viewers as they progress. TiVo, of course, would be of no help to all those grazers.

Is it possible the TV networks themselves have propagated these hysterical fears to cause widespread panic among advertisers? Could it be the networks also are whispering that ad agencies in the very near future won't need big creative departments anymore? Who needs "creative" people to put a Coca-Cola red couch on "American Idol?"

At first, the TiVo folks went along with the charade and agreed that the TiVo device will do away with TV commercials as we know them. But lately they are claiming TiVo users won't bypass all TV ads-just those crass 30-second spots inserted by the networks. TiVo is willing, nay, eager, to provide advertisers with long-form commercial time before and after the TiVo-recorded programming for more tasteful, erudite messages for upscale viewers of refined tastes. As we've reported, TiVo has already done deals for these "entertainment showcases" with a variety of marketers, mostly from the entertainment industry. "We're talking to everyone, doing longer-term deals and multiple campaigns over many months," said a TiVo exec.

With Tivo looking more and more like a rival TV network, what's next? Will Replay, TiVo's struggling competitor, gear up a service that will wipe out the long-form commercial messages surrounding the TiVo-delivered shows?

All this speculating is fun, but here's where it ends. What I feel absolutely confident is going to happen is this: The traditional 30-second commercial will continue to prosper, and TiVo and Replay will never amount to much more than a minor irritant to the TV networks. But the networks will have succeeded in developing a second revenue scheme (whether they actually fan the TiVo flames or not).

And advertisers, I'm sorry to report, will be stuck with the costs of their agencies' creative departments for as far as my tired old eyes can see.

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