Skip to main content

McAdams On: Google’s Ad-Blocking Dilemma

MEANWHILE— This happened. Google’s top ad executive said ad-blocking technology is making life hard for businesses that rely on ad revenue. This is according to Mark Bergen at re/code, who quoted Google’s Sridhar Ramaswamy saying, “The real problem is that ad blockers throw out the baby with the bathwater. They make monetization impossible for a whole slew of people.”

This caused alert readers in the broadcast TV community to sit up like Scooby Doo at snack time.

“Shoe’s now on the other foot,” one wrote.

“This is a good story,” said another.

It would seem so from the perspective of an industry that’s enriched attorneys nationwide to fight ad-blocking technology. It took three years and the combined litigatory firepower of News Corp., Comcast and CBS Corp. to bring their case against the ad-skipping Dish Hopper to a draw this past January.

But that was different. That wasn’t Google. It was broadcasters who stood to lose ad revenue, and let’s be real. Google is cool. Broadcast is not, thanks in large part to the relentless spin campaign in Washington, D.C. to replace over-the-air TV with a paid-access model.

Broadcasters, led by Fox, were slammed for fighting the Hopper in court.

“Ordinary consumers are in its crosshairs,” a D.C. think tank supported by consumer electronics industry said, “while Fox demands technological stagnation from innovators.”

The “innovator” in this case was a quasi-competitive entity—Dish—with which all the broadcast plaintiffs had retransmission contracts. It was no accident that Dish’s Hopper DVR could be programmed to “AutoHop” commercials on the Big Four broadcast networks during primetime, exclusively.

It would be like every TV station across the country carrying ads encouraging Dish customers to “cut the cord” and offering free antennas. Or better yet, tucking the message into every one of their scripted shows in a product-placement kind of way. (To punk ad-skipping technology, if that wasn’t implied.)

The dust-up never got quite that ugly. The judge in the Hopper case ruled that Dish’s use of the technology violated its contracts with the plaintiffs. However, and more importantly, she ruled that it did not violate copyright law.

Copyright law lets content creators decide—within limits—what can and cannot be done with their content. It is the last bastion for content-derived revenue, and about as effective in digital media as an umbrella in a typhoon.

This was true even before the Dish Hopper decision, which left the door open for another dog to get loose: TiVo’s Bolt. Unveiled this week, the Bolt has a “SkipMode” feature that automatically cuts the commercials out of “the top 20 most-watched networks,” from 4 p.m. to midnight, and “12:30 a.m. for late night talk shows airing on ABC, NBC and CBS,” according to TiVo.

The list of 20 currently includes ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, The CW, AMC, Comedy Central, Discovery, TBS, FX, TLC, History, TNT, Food Network, USA, Bravo, ABC, Family, SyFy, Lifetime and HGTV. It will be interesting to see how non-broadcast nets handle the sitch.

It may be worth remembering how TiVo pioneered the ad-skipping phenomenon long before now, and it arguably helped fuel the rise of serialized shows with non-union actors dropped naked into the wilderness with a stranger, or whisked away to an Irish castle to marry a stranger, or starved alongside other strangers by genetically blessed emotional sadists.

By the time these types of contrived reality shows can be recorded, the entire narrative has circulated through social media in eight languages.

Google’s ad-blocking dilemma is more complicated. No one has to watch a commercial on TV, whether or not they have a DVR that skips it for them. Americans have a long tradition of visiting the reading room or grabbing a sandwich when the loud mattress guy comes on.

You can’t get away from online ads. If you want to look up the meaning of a word, for example, you’ll likely be treated to a grossly expanding naked cartoon belly in your peripheral vision. Don’t even think about looking up a skin disease. Elsewhere, a story about a mass shooting is as likely to be surrounded by soft porn ads as a story about actual soft porn, because vulgarity is click bait. Then there are pop-ups. Dreaded, hateful pop-ups. And Flash ads, downloading on the page like dial-up in 1995.

Yet none of these things motivated the Google ad man to consider the sanctity of the “user experience” like the ad-blocking apps that shot to the top of the charts the day after Apple enabled them on iOS 9.

That’s when Mr. Ramaswamy noticed a problem. Again, as quoted by re/code:

“I think it’s going to be difficult for us to agree as an industry, but it’s one of those cases where not agreeing is actually going to lead to a much worse outcome for all of us.”

Hmm….

Let’s see how that goes.