Television Wants to be Free

by on March 19, 2006 · 2 comments

Apropos last week’s discussion of “parasitic” technologies, Ars has a great survey of the surge in product placements on TV. In a nutshell, as TiVos have made it easier to avoid commercials, networks have responded by blurring the line between advertisement and content, placing products (and plugs for products) within the show itself.

Frankly, I think this is probably better for everyone, at least for certain types of TV content. Given a choice between sitting through 18 30-second commercials in a half-hour sitcom, or seeing 10 product placements in the course of the show, I would much prefer the placements. At best, they can conceivably enhance the show by increasing its realism. At worst, they’ll be mildly irritating and distracting. Yes, at the margin it will probably reduce the artistic integrity of certain shows, but how many network TV shows have artistic integrity in the first place?

I think this trend has broader implications for the future of the television industry as well. The current television marketplace has a puzzling contradiction: on the one hand, networks fight tooth and nail to get people to watch their shows, for free, over the air. On the other hand, they charge a rather stiff fee for the privilege of watching the same content–often at lower quality–via the Internet. Obviously, part of the concern is that the Internet users will strip out the ads. Product placement solves that problem by making it difficult to strip ads without mangling the story itself.

Which leads to an interesting question: why don’t the networks simply make their shows freely available on the Internet to anyone who wants them? Put them on peer-to-peer networks to save on bandwidth! Upload them to YouTube and Google Video! After all, an eyeball is an eyeball. Sooner or later, Nielsen will figure out a way to measure how many eyeballs Internet distribution reaches. As long as there are plenty of products placed in each episode, advertisers will pay to have them distributed regardless of the medium.

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