Is that bug an ad?

As multiple choices and fatigue from commercial breaks threaten to lure viewers away from their favourite TV shows and movies, channel heads are realising that advertisements may mean money, but the consumer is king. Coming up: bugs that invade your TV screen with ad messages in the middle of the show, and shows entirely free of commercials

Have you watched a film on Zee Studio lately? If you were counting on a loo or food break fifteen minutes in, you'd have been waiting for a long time. In a bid to hook viewers who are beginning to tire of constant interruptions by advertisements, the movie channel has begun to show ads only after the first forty minutes of a movie. Like Anurag Bedi, Business Head, Zee Cafe and Zee Studio, explains, "We've also had single break movies at the 11 pm slot under the property name Hollywood Home Theatre to give the viewer a theatrical experience. During the launch of a big property we try and reduce the number of breaks to build a relationship with the viewer."

Zee studio isn't the only one. As the number of channels continue to increase and you have more than one option to choose from during commercial breaks, channel heads are quickly realising that the old model of punctuating a show with multiple ad breaks is leading to loss in viewership.

So, you have timers that tell you how long the programme will take to come back on air, and unobtrusive tickers and split screens that advertise products, shows and services to you even as you're watching Jennifer taking on Christian on Masterchef USA.

Why ads changed
It wasn't always so, however. "Initially, there were very few channels that catered to different genres of programming. Viewers therefore would stick to a channel despite long breaks. Today, the viewer is spoilt for choice and to retain him becomes a mammoth task, which is why broadcasters have adopted various tools to hold on to him/her and build loyalty," admits Bedi.

HBO for example, utilises the mandatory 5 minutes credits scroll to roll up the screen and run ads of advertisers as well as their own shows to make the most of an otherwise "dead" space. Understandable, since movie channels have it the toughest, because their content is much less malleable to the whims of the programmers and therefore requires more out of the box advertising ideas.

Advertisements, therefore, are now breaking into the very fabric of television programming to provide more options to advertisers without adding to the length of a commercial break. A popular tool being used by most content channels, movies, TV shows or sports channels are countdown timers, which inform viewers about the exact duration of the break.

Bugs that sell you things
"Bugs -- animated pop outs close to the channel's logo like the ones of People Magazine on our show The Best Dressed Show 2011 on UTV Stars are one such tool," explains Nikhil Gandhi, Head of Network Sales for UTV Broadcasting. "Scrollers and tickers, which are transitioning strips of text appearing at the top and the bottom of a television screen are also used.

For example, we had tickers on Emotional Atyachaar, a show on UTV Bindass, which contained messages from our sponsors and captions about special moments on the show, Astons (banners of various shapes and sizes) and L-shaped banners shrink the screen size to reveal the advertiser's messages. It is crucial, however to time these right so that they are not intrusive to the viewer's experience," he says, citing the example of Dadagiri on UTV Bindaas as a well-done in-TV advertisement.

These are just the tip of the iceberg. According to Aditya Swamy, EVP and Business Head, MTV India, the TV viewer and advertiser relationship is going to undergo a lot of changes to increase advertiser and viewer interaction in the near future. "MTV's biggest strength is that we make our own shows, which gives us the flexibility to take our viewer engagement one step further and also provides our advertisers with extra mileage."

AFPs or Advertiser Funded Programming, therefore, has become the new mantra that channels like MTV and UTV swear by. It involves brands within the very conceptualisation of a show. He cites the example of Karizma bikes, which are an integral part of the popular MTV reality show Roadies. Similarly, Pulsar is at the heart of Stuntmania. "Coke Studio also works without too many ad breaks," he says.

Cricket and commercials
The broadcast of cricket matches too has undergone a facelift. The first transformation was witnessed during the 2007 World Cup telecast and the subsequent IPL series. Astons, L-boards, tickers, bugs and noisy little mascots bombarded the television with advertisements.

The big leap came in 2010, however, during the Micromax Cup. A new concept known as virtual advertisements was introduced by Ten Sports. Basically, digitised advertisements -- where a translucent screen with an advertisement appears on screen -- were seamlessly inserted during a live television broadcast. "Since the innovation took place when the match was being broadcast live, nobody could miss it -- unlike a regular commercial that happens during a break," is how Chief Revenue Officer and Head, Niche channels, Zee Entertainment Enterprises, Joy Chakraborth puts it.

Not everyone is in agreement, however. Rohit Gupta, National Sales Head at Multi Screen Media Private Limited, (formerly SET India Private Ltd.), feels that these seemingly harmless innovations were proving obtrusive to cricket viewers across the country, which triggered a second metamorphosis. "The BCCI stepped in and banned the usage of most graphics during any cricket match featuring the Indian cricket team.

They wanted a cleaner screen with fewer interruptions. Virtual ads were removed, no more than 15 L-boards per game were permitted, and that too only during dead ball situations." Little wonder then that the last ICC Cricket World Cup witnessed higher TRPs than those of the last two World Cups combined.

What's ahead
Obviously, the focus of television advertising is visibly switching from brands to consumers in spite of the fact that channel subscriptions provide for a mere 10 per cent of a television channel's revenue. Swamy sees the trend accelerate further in favour of the consumer in the next few years.

"Pay-per-view television, which is already a reality in the US, is the next big thing in Indian television. Subscribers will be able to choose specific programs and view them commercial free. This will not only improve the viewing quality but also improve demographic data, which, if used strategically by advertisers can improve their visibility through smart positioning in original content."

Bedi adds, "Movie festivals will be recognised as even bigger branding exercises in the future, with movie channels teaming up with various brands to sponsor entire movie festivals. For example, in the month of December alone, brands ranging from the ITC Group, Emami, Blackberry, Ford, Borges, et al have their branded festivals running on Zee Studio."

The history of ads on Indian TV
Before the introduction of cable television in India, advertisements were relegated to isolated slots at the beginning and end of TV shows. Movie telecasts mirrored the same format as theatres, with ads punctuating the intermission of a film. A cricket broadcast would only suffer ads during a drinks break or the intervals during the switch of play between teams. In 1992, economic liberalisation relaxed the rigid nomenclatures surrounding the Indian broadcast space, which allowed Rupert Murdoch and MTV to make an entry into the Indian satellite stratosphere. The television advertising space, as we knew it, would never be the same again.

The next fifteen years witnessed a surfeit of international companies from several different industry verticals venturing into the bee's nest of economic activity that India had become. Television gradually began to form a symbiotic relationship with the country's economic liberalisation, where advertisers were king. After all, they were the ones generating the channel's revenues. Movies, television soaps, sports channels and their ilk were soon bombarded with advertisements. Shows ran commercial breaks longer than the runtime of the show itself.

Movies which started during the day would end well into the afternoon, while a cricket match converted the television screen into a branding canvas with a smorgasbord of options for advertisers. Suddenly, over a span of less than a decade, from less than 50, the number of channels had escalated to more than 500.

Funnily enough, it was at this point that television advertising began to become a victim of its own greed. People switched channels the moment an ad break commenced and with so many channels at their disposal they had more than enough options to choose from. This nadir in viewer loyalty galvanised by the advent of broadband Internet and social networking triggered a wave of change in television advertising and its ethos in the country.

Ad innovation
MTV Roadies utilises its Twitter page to carry on conversations during an ad break. The page itself is heavily branded by the numerous advertisers attached to the show.

KBC 5 had questions being asked at the beginning of the ad break to which answers were provided right before the show resumed. Prizes were given away for correct answers and viewers would be glued to the screen during ad breaks.

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