Funding the Future: Advertising’s Role in Sustaining Culture & the Alternatives

by on May 17, 2012 · 6 comments

My most recent Forbes column is entitled, “We All Hate Advertising, But We Can’t Live Without It.” It’s my attempt to briefly (a) defend the role advertising has traditionally played in sustaining news, entertainment, and online service, and (b) discuss some possible alternatives to advertising that could be tapped if advertising starts failing us a media cross-subsidy.

What got me thinking about this issue again was the controversy over satellite video operator DISH Network offering its customers a new “Auto Hop” capability for its Hopper whole-home HD DVR system. Auto Hop will give viewers the ability to automatically skip over commercials for most recorded prime time programs shown on ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC when viewed the day after airing. It makes the viewing experience feel like the ultimate free lunch. Alas, something still must pay the bills. As innovative as that technology is, we can be certain that it will not make content consumption cost-free. We’ll just pay the price in some other way. The same is true for online services since it’s never been easier to use technology to block ads.

So, what is going to pay the bills for content as ad-skipping becomes increasingly automated and effortless? Stated differently, what are the other possible methods of picking up the tab for content creation? Here’s a rough taxonomy:


A.    Direct Fees (Periodic billing / Pay-per-view)

B.    Indirect Charges (Tiers / Bundles / Package pricing)


A.    General / Mass market ads (Billboards / Banner ads / Pop-up online ads)

B.    Targeted ads (Directed pitch)

C.    Integrated (Product placement / Payola)

D.    Sponsorship / Underwriting


A.    Individual  (ex: Arts & opera funding)

B.    Foundational (ex: Knight Foundation)

C.    Governmental  (ex: CPB / BBC model)

IV.    INTERNAL CROSS-SUBSIDY  (Profitable division subsidizes unprofitable / “loss leader” strategies)


There are probably other ways of subsidizing content creation, but those are the primary methods. I have no idea what combination of strategies will sustain content going forward, but I think advertising is likely to play a diminished role in the mix as it becomes increasingly easy for us to filter it out of the mix. But the content creators will just shift costs elsewhere and raise the prices for programming through direct and indirect pricing techniques. Do you like HBO’s pricing model? Pay-per-view? Paywalls? Well, it doesn’t make a difference whether you do or not because you’ll likely be seeing a lot more of those models in your life in coming years if advertising fades as a subsidization method.

Alternatively, as I also note in my Forbes piece, “we could see a lot more Texaco Star Theaters in our future, with major companies essentially owning specific shows or networks.” Such program sponsorship and content underwriting has always been with it, but it could really explode as a cross-subsidy method if traditional advertising starts failing. “But it will be challenging for every show or website to find its own corporate benefactor, and it will also raise issues about undue influence and bias,” I note in my essay.

I hope no one seriously believes that philanthropic models can fill the gaps. Even if we saw a significant uptick in voluntary charitable giving or even taxpayer support for the arts and media, there’s no way in hell it will possibly begin to cover the the bill for what advertising support covers today.

In the end, I can’t help but think how great we’ve had it when it comes to advertising. As I also noted in my essay, advertising has been “the great subsidizer of the press, entertainment, and online services” historically and benefited us tremendously even if we haven’t appreciated that fact. “It’s possible that no single industry — not newspapers nor search engines nor anything else — has done as much to advance the storehouse of accessible human knowledge in the 20th century as advertisers,” argues Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein. Klein is exactly right, yet it doesn’t really make a difference how important advertising has been to us if we fail to appreciate that fact and increasingly take steps to exclude it from our lives.

As that becomes easier and easier to accomplish, we shouldn’t bitch and whine when the bills (literally) come due for the content we all desire. As always, there is no free lunch. We’ll pay the price one way or another.


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