Friday, June 24, 2005

TV viewers shirking their labor tasks

An article that popped up in the UK press recently cited a report by Accenture (the former Arthur Andersen) on US TV viewers avoiding advertisements:

American viewers will be skipping almost 10% of TV advertisements within four years by using personal video recorders, research claimed yesterday. Accenture, the consultancy which published the research, said the technology would have a dramatic impact on the advertising and TV industries unless changes were made. The TV ad market is worth $60bn (£33bn) in the United States and £3bn in Britain.

The consultancy based its figures on statistics that show that up to half of all ads in homes with personal video recorders are ignored. However, such homes watch more TV in total. By 2009, 40% of all American homes are expected to own personal video recorders, compared with 8% now. The machines can automatically skip ads when recording programmes.


The report is a bit misleading in saying that personal video recorders (PVRs) can "automatically skip ads when recording programs". Some may be able to, but many (including the brand I use, TiVo) cannot. This is reportedly not because of any technical difficulty in detecting ads and removing them (the black-screen breaks and dramatic increase in sound levels alone are often enough to cue a computer algorithm that an adverisement has arrived) but because of agreements with advertising-supported broadcasting networks who have attempted to sue PVR makers and service providers in the past. For example, in late Oct 2001, ABC, CBS, and NBC filed suit against then-maker of ReplayTV SonicBlue to block sales of its PVR once a "commercial skip" feature was added. (Cite: Laurie J. Flynn, "Networks see threat in new video recorder," NYT 2001-11-05)

How does this relate to "information labor"? Interestingly, one way of looking at the economic model for advertising-supported broadcasting (television or radio) is that we as consumers are "employed" by networks and their advertisers for the "work" we do in watching commercials, and are "paid" through the currency of (supposedly) high quality, entertaining and informative programs. (See for example the work of Dallas Smythe.) Another complementary way of looking at the relation is that networks "purchase" our attention by paying us with programming, and then turn around and "sell" that attention -- our "eyeballs" -- to advertisers trying to get their product or political messages out. Since labor per unit time is, in neoclassical economic theory, simply a service or commodity bought and sold through the competitive market, thinking of that bought-and-sold consumer attention as labor fits in here as well. Finally, one of the tenets of several different forms of qualitative and interpretive analyses of mass media is that media messages do not flow unproblemmatically from sender to receiver in a "transmission model," but must be put into lived context and thoughtfully interpreted (or willfully ignored) by audiences in more of a "cultural" model. (See for example the work of James Carey.) This "work" of meaning-making can be applied to advertising messages as well -- work that is avoided through careful or automatic use of the PVR.

However, the "work" metaphor can be extended in other ways as well -- particularly through the idea that "work" must be qualified not only by how much labor is performed (and by whom), but how productive that labor is in the end (and for whom). I submit that PVRs actually make the "work" that viewing audiences do on behalf of networks and advertisers more productive. After all, PVRs are typically arranged in an information network which allows anonymous feedback to the PVR service provider on a whole range of consumer behaviors. TiVo can presumably collect data on who watches which shows, where and when they watch, even what moment they abandon a recorded show in favor of another. Advertisments viewed can be tracked along side advertisements skipped; moments when people are watching "live" TV can be correlated with moments when they "time shift" TV instead. All of this gives the networks and their advertisers an immense amount of consumer behavior and (ostensibly) consumer desire data, which can then presumably be "put to work" in the service of creating ever-more targeted and effective strategic communications, not only in television but in other less-avoidable media environments as well.

So instead of paying twelve bucks to TiVo every month for the privilege of (somewhat) shirking my commercial-viewing duties, maybe I should be asking my TiVo to pay me for the privilege of learning my complex consumer behaviors instead ...

No comments: