Cable Tactic: Skip Ad-Skipping

5/11/2007 8:00 PM Eastern

Las Vegas — Thanks to an upcoming trial between Cox Communications, ESPN and ABC, the cable operator's customers in Orange County, Calif., will soon be able to watch key college football games and top series like Grey's Anatomy and Lost on their timetable — not the network's.

The catch: Cox's digital-cable customers won't be able to fast-forward through the commercials.

The nix on message-skipping is one example of new approaches cable-industry participants are exploring as they try to figure out ways to marry the promise of on-demand TV with the reality of the advertising marketplace, according to operator and network executives at a “State of the Ad Sales Union” panel presented by the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau May 8.

“We're trying a lot of new things, and we're not sure what's going to stick,” said ESPN executive vice president of sales and marketing Sean Bratches.

Disabling fast-forwarding is one way for the cable industry to help counter advertiser concerns about new technologies, like digital-video recorders, that enable viewers to reduce or avoid exposure to traditional TV commercials.

A similar service is Time Warner Cable's “Start Over” video-on-demand service, which lets viewers select and play numerous TV shows at any time during their normal linear television window.

According to Time Warner Cable Media Sales president Joan Gillman, customers have — surprisingly to the nation's second-largest cable operator — accepted a prohibition on commercial fast-forwarding within the Start Over service almost without objection. “They love it … because they get an additional service of being able to time-shift a program,” she noted.

VOD's courtship of advertising dominated the panel discussion, but executives also praised the ongoing contributions of the traditional, 30-second linear TV spot.

Charlie Thurston, president of Comcast's ad-sales unit, Comcast Spotlight, said he's convinced that 30-second spots will remain dear to advertisers even in environment that is increasingly giving viewers on-demand options. He added that traditional-length commercials will emerge as a “gateway” that invites viewers to sample related, longer-form advertising information about products — effectively acting as a bridge between linear and on-demand advertising.

“The :30 is the hook, but then it's taking that consumer to a deeper, richer experience,” Thurston said.

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