The death of the TVC as we know it

One of my most enduring memories of growing up in Srirangam, near Trichy, is the advent of television in the early 80s in our town, and then our home. As a kid, suddenly I had entertainment options to look forward to, though Doordarshan had sparse kids-only entertainment choice. So, weekends were particularly looked forward to, for the Sunday morning cartoons and the Saturday evening Spiderman cartoon show!

And then I look at my kids, now. They watch what they want to, when they want to. Not when a device tells them to get ready at a particular time and sit in front of it.

Even though streaming content is a very tiny part of India in terms of usage (despite the outsized share of voice in online conversations), there are very early signs that linear television is on its way out.

Last month, Warner Media announced that it is shutting 2 of its linear channels – HBO and WB TV – in India, Pakistan, Maldives and Bangladesh, citing poor monetization possibilities. Cable TV pricing in India is really cheap and hence that is not a sustainable business model. So the channels rely entirely on advertising to stay afloat. But if their viewer numbers are tiny, advertiser would naturally prefer other, more-watched linear TV channels.

2 very good, detailed pieces (though US-centric) on the move from linear TV to streaming:

I reckon more linear TV channels may eventually shut off and move to streaming. Whether streaming offers better monetization possibilities or not is a different subject altogether, but I started wondering about the aftermath of not having enough linear TV channels. That means a very big source of advertising goes out of the window for brands and agencies.

The end of the TVC (Television Commercial)?

Consider the sweeping changes:

1. TVCs created the templates of 10-second, 15-second, 30-second, 60-second ad films. Why these seconds? Because ads interrupted viewers from watching what they wanted. At first, all kinds of viewers watched all kinds of TV content with open-eyed wonder. But then, ads became ads and programming was the mainstay. So, to get a brand’s pitch across as fast as possible, ads became short, in order to communicate the product or service’s USP during the forced interruption.

If TVCs are forced to move off linear TV and find themselves on the internet, by default, they do not need work with forced constraints of timespan. They really have to earn their view.

Right now, ads are made first for TV and then reused on the internet. When there’s no linear TV to pave the way, agencies and brands would need to think afresh how to make the same TVCs differently, for a different media that is entirely on-demand.

What about channels like YouTube, you may argue. Don’t they interrupt (pre-video), just like linear TV? Yes, they do, but they also give viewers options to skip, after certain (pre-determined) seconds. Linear TV never had that option because the technology did not permit all that. So, that’s like conceiving a TVC script with the assumption that people may skip it… and then work your way backward to make it compelling enough to not be skipped.

2. Could streaming platforms start showing us ads? Absolutely. Right now, most streaming platforms are ad-free because their main revenue source is audience fees. It’s not very sustainable and they are all working on building their audiences to a number where it becomes sustainable, but eventually, they would need to augment their business model to include advertising revenue too. They could offer 2 streams – ad-supported, super-subsidized stream, and ad-free, premium stream.

When this happens, the ads could mimic conventional linear TV ads, but with some crucial changes. Ads on linear TV are sold based on when they are watched, besides what they are tied along with (the kind of programs). While the choice of programs would continue to be available, the time slot based selection may suffer on an on-demand content platform. People would consume what they want when they want to. So advertisers can only choose the ‘what’, not the ‘when’ to show ads.

3. Consider the audience segmentation. How would the Socio Economic Classification (SEC) evolve when linear TV is out of the picture when it comes to media buying? And more importantly, when every individual viewer watches content on her/his own device, the contours of the segmentation need to be a lot deeper and sharper.

Considering the entire technology is digital, the viewership numbers and other parameters (where did they come from, where did they go next, how long do they way, how often… etc.) would be far more easily available and you just need to look at Netflix to know the possibilities of building a more rounded profile of audiences, make cohorts of similar audiences and then sell those packages to advertisers like linear TV can never even dream of creating or selling.

4. The final consideration is around the internet’s many-to-many communication nature. Linear TV ads were primarily a form of broadcast. If you want to say something about an ad, before the internet, you could only tell your friend IRL.

Now, I watch no linear TV at all (I stopped paying for my Tata Sky subscription long ago) and watch 100% of all my ads on the internet by searching for them consciously, by demand. I do not stumble on ads serendipitously anymore – it’s always because I went searching for it, or it was shared on my timeline recommended by someone, based on some reason, or I read about it in online news and watch it in context.

When agencies and brands become aware that all their ads may be consumed predominantly in a system where viewers can offer instant feedback (unlike linear TV), that presents a lot of interesting opportunities (to game the feedback and interactivity) and dangers (bad news travels very fast; of negative framing and perception created by an early viewer being shared as THE way to consume the ad, coloring all further viewers’ perception).


A counterintuitive spanner is also in the works, by none other than Netflix! Netflix is actually testing a linear channel called Netflix Direct, in France!!

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