opinion

Paying for What You Get

Stephen Yagielowicz

It's no longer about 'viewer loss' as folks run to the refrigerator or bathroom during a commercial break, it's a cultural backlash against advertising that leaves people feeling 'entitled' to free access to the content they so dearly crave, but are unwilling to pay for, and 'angered' at those who provide it for them...

As consumers, many folks focus on 'getting what they paid for' — and rightfully so. Why then, are we so unwilling to 'pay for what we get' when it comes to entertainment media, and so much so that we tend to be vehemently against the providers of our entertainment getting what THEY paid for? Confused? Consider the lowly car radio, a staple of modern life and source of entertainment, enjoyment, and distraction on the open road; and one that audiophiles and kids with a 'mine is bigger than yours' attitude can spend enormous sums of money on acquiring and improving. Enjoying a sunny day on the highway, traveling from here to there, one might (as I do) casually flip through the channels, one after another, playing my favorite songs, ignoring those I find silly or offensive, and totally disregarding the commercials as if they were inter-channel static.

Sound familiar? What I am doing is stealing. You may not think so, but just as when I grab my super-duper digital cable wonder remote and quickly blast off to preset favorite channel 1, 2, or 3 at the slightest hint of a commercial, I am stealing content from it's provider. While this is not the case when I am listening to NPR (National Public Radio) or watching non-advertiser supported 'cable only' television or premium channels like HBO that I pay for on a subscription basis as part of my huge monthly cable bill, it IS the case when I am listening to commercial radio stations, or watching any advertiser-supported programming, and avoiding exposure to the commercials as if they carried the plague:

The reason I say this is 'stealing' is because the content that we all consider to be 'free' — radio, television, and yes, even the content we find on the Internet, was NOT put there by God; like so many daisies in a field, free for everyone to enjoy — it was made by 'creative types' then bought and paid for by advertisers who are providing it to you IN EXCHANGE for your attention to, and response to, their offer! While you are not in any way obligated to purchase their products or patronize their services, AVOIDING these ads IS the same thing as stealing their provider's content! Notice that I said "avoiding" here and not "ignoring" — a major distinction that I will explain later.

Of course, I for one will always skip the commercials, even though it is technically stealing, because while I know this is 'wrong,' I really don't care. As long as content providers wish to adhere to their long obsolete business model that made perfect sense in a time when consumers may have been capable of receiving only one or two radio or television stations, and so had precious few options to switch to, I will get my goodies for free. And I am not alone — heck, isn't that part of 'The American Way?' And isn't this the reason why when so many consider the theft of 'over the air' content to mean 'enjoying what we were given for free,' that we rebel at the thought of paying for content? As if we are somehow entitled to free entertainment:

The Napster Generation
This moral malaise is symptomatic of the 'Napster Generation' which is made up of those who find it perfectly acceptable to steal gigabytes worth of MP3s (and justify it as 'sharing') while being aghast at the suggestion that they should be required to PAY a small monthly fee for access to the new Napster service.

Now I've been a Webmaster long enough to remember a time when the mere mention of any commercial enterprise would get you flamed, and shunned from these hallowed halls of academia with an uproarious and nearly unanimous shout of 'the Internet is NOT to be used for business!' While the times have certainly changed, it is apparent that some of these underlying feelings are still running rampant, and one way in which they manifest themselves is through the practice of 'deep linking.'

The Internet as we know it was built on the premise of free and open hyperlinking, and the more the merrier. Webmasters were free to link from and to any 'unclassified' document they could find, all in the interest of information sharing, and building the Web. Now, there is a movement to stop the practice of 'deep linking' where instead of a link to the relevant resource, you may be required to link directly to a site's 'home page.' Just as we as consumers were once conditioned to expect content for 'free' we may soon be conditioned to expect it for 'fee.'

While this can indeed mitigate some of the 'link rot' that pervades the 'Net, the real motivation behind this movement is that site operators do not wish to dilute 'front page' visits and their resulting increase in banner ad impressions. After all, unless it is provided by the government at the expense of taxpayers, or done as a labor of love or of philanthropy, there is (usually) a vested for-profit commercial interest in providing viewers with any form of media content. When the advertisements that support the content are 'avoided' there is no longer a reason to run them, and thus no longer a reason to support the content. There is an all too often overlooked cause and effect relationship here that is not so easily dismissed as 'corporate greed.'

And this is where the distinction between 'ignoring' and 'avoiding' advertisements comes into play. If an ad is consistently ignored, then the metrics will reveal this, and a more compelling campaign will be developed. When ads are 'avoided' however, then no amount of fine-tuning will result in a higher 'pull,' especially if a mechanism to facilitate this ad avoidance is employed. The new wave of home digital video recorders as well as some long-available technologies that strip television commercials from broadcast signals are one example as are the pop-up terminating features of the new Mozilla browser and several commercially available pieces of software which prevent the launch of additional pop-up or pop-under windows, which typically contain the advertisements that Web site operators use to support their content offerings.

Without the appearance and resulting commercial effectiveness of the sponsor's advertisements, there will inevitably be less choice of material, or I should say, 'freely available' material. While this is a cycle that will likely play itself out over the next few years, it seems clear that as more consumer's take steps to defeat the advertising that supports the very products that they desire, advertiser's will find new ways to reach their audiences, and consumers will be forced to actually 'pay' for the things that they so easily 'steal' today.

Think I'm crazy? If we all surfed with browsers that could eliminate pop-ups and strip banner ads before the Web page was displayed, how many 'free' porn sites would still remain in business? Just as we as consumers were once conditioned to expect content for 'free' we may soon be conditioned to expect it for 'fee.'

While it is easy to make the case that pop-ups as well as television and radio commercials can be annoying, and that we have 'the right' to 'share' things with our 'friends,' or show people where to find what they are looking for with the least number of 'clicks,' we should keep in mind that we are able to enjoy the rich and varied wealth that is today's cornucopia of entertainment offerings because somebody paid for us to have it — and shouldn't THEY get what they've paid for too?
~ Stephen

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