:30 Spot on Life Support?: Considering Media Advertising Options
Justin Wyatt / University of Rhode Island

:30 Spot on Life Support?

When viewers are asked about their sources of awareness for a new TV show, almost without fail, ‘television commercials on the network’ emerge as the leading response. Intuitively, it makes sense: viewers of a particular network are ‘captive audiences’ to be exposed to promos for new shows, and, with any luck, the like-minded show being advertised fits with the show being watched. In 2014, reviewing results from an audience questionnaire, I found that ‘social media’ had supplanted TV promos as the key source of awareness for a particular new show. Suddenly even one of the most trusted adages of television marketing needed to be thrown out the window. Of course, the exciting – and terrifying – aspect of the period was how many other truisms of television marketing were being revised, reformed, and sometimes simply rejected by the new variety of options for TV consumption. I want to consider one specific battleground from this arena: the role of digital vs. television advertising. [ ((Brian Steinberg, “Do TV and Advertising Belong Together,” Variety, September 18, 2014,
http://variety.com/2014/tv/news/do-tv-and-advertising-still-belong-together-1201308758/.))] Rather than push to conclusions on the relative merits and liabilities of each, I am interested in the ways through which the media industries have negotiated a dialogue over these advertising forms. This dialogue enacts certain strategies of resistance against the encroachment of digital advertising, but, over time, even this resistance has become frayed. More recently, some industry leaders have made a larger argument that is probably more relevant: what role does advertising play at all for consumers, viewers, and audience members?

Markers in the Timeline

Going back to 2007, Ryan McConnell’s Advertising Age article, ‘How the Ad World Is Dealing with the Decline of the :30,’ focuses on the financial accommodations being made in TV advertising to create spots at a lower cost. [ (( Ryan McConnell, “How the Ad World’s Dealing with the Decline of the :30,” Advertising Age, 78.45, November 12, 2007: 14.))] This shift toward online video and alternate platforms paralleled the economic downturn at that time to privilege more cost effective ways to connect with consumers. Digital ad spending grew year-by-year until, by 2017, it finally outstripped TV advertising ($209 billion for digital and $178 billion for TV). [ (( Peter Kafka and Rani Molla, “2017 was the year digital ad spending finally beat TV,” Recode, December 4, 2017, https://www.recode.net/2017/12/4/16733460/2017-digital-ad-spend-advertising-beat-tv. ))] Looking solely at the US market, eMarketer forecast that the percentage of TV ad spend would be topped by digital ad spend in 2017, with increases leading to a 12% gap by 2020. [ (( “Digital Ad Spending to Surpass TV Next Year,” eMarketer.com, https://www.emarketer.com/Article/Digital-Ad-Spending-Surpass-TV-Next-Year/1013671.))] The death knell for television advertising is confounded by the simple fact that TV advertising is still, in fact, slowly growing. Brian Steinberg reported that the 2017 network ‘upfronts’ demonstrated a 3-4% gain for advanced advertising commitments compared to 2016. [ (( Brian Steinberg, “How TV Tuned in More Ad Dollars: Digital Doubts, Drugs and Desperation,” Variety, July 13, 2017, http://Variety.com/2017/tv/news/2017-tv-upfront-advertising-measurement-1202494620/.))] Further, the pace of digital advertising growth has slowed, making the ‘threat’ less of an immediate concern.

US Total Media Ad Spending Share, by Media, 2014-2020 (% of total) — Projection

Strategies of Resistance

The trajectory of revenues for digital and television ads is only so interesting. In our consumer society, goods are there to be sold and bolstering awareness, image, and consideration through advertising and communication, of any form, remains absolutely central. More thought-provoking are the ways through which the industry has attempted to shape the image for TV vs. digital advertising. The model of television advertising has been crucial to commercial television since the days of single show sponsorships. It is hardly surprising that the industry has marshaled a robust ‘campaign’ on multiple fronts to protect TV advertising as a form.

One of the fronts for this resistance has been quantification. The standards for evaluating and counting the experience of watching an online video ad have been in process, with several purveyors offering ways to understand volume, sentiment and engagement with online video. Given that Nielsen ratings are the accepted currency for TV ratings among content providers, agencies, and consumer brands, this monopolization makes for an easy and reliable way to understand audience, even if there are serious and ongoing debates on how Nielsen has accounted for quantifying cross-screen viewing. The multiple options for online measurement, with Nielsen just one of many players at the table, encourage questions on the efficacy of digital advertising: how long do people watch? What’s the context of their viewing? How does engagement differ compared to encountering :30 spots on TV?

These question underline a recurring theme of resistance: to suggest that the online video ad experience is qualitatively different than the TV ad experience. In 2016, Geri Wang, then ABC Sales President, offered a vigorous examination of digital advertising. [ (( David Lieberman, “ ABC Tells Advertisers That TV Spots Sell Better Than Digital Ones,” Deadline, May 17, 2016, http://deadline.com/2016/05/abc-tv-ads-sell-better-than-digital-1201758341/.))] Her position was that the concept of prime time equals a ‘promise of quality.’ So, in effect, the television advertising experience is bolstered by this preferential screen. The pitch was accompanied by a report from Accenture, a high-profile consulting and strategy firm. The benefits of multiplatform advertising were proclaimed, with the distinct ‘halo effect’ of television spots over the rest of the advertising package. For digital, marginal rates declined quickly and the value of long-form (=TV) vs. short-form (=online) video were identified. The bottom line was that ‘TV drives sales,’ digital was seen as a useful, but secondary, augment. Separate from the ABC position, a variety of limitations have been leveled against digital advertising: click fraud, ad blocking, and the placement of video next to objectionable content to name just a few of the complaints.

Steve Whittington (Executive Director, Consumer Data & Analytics, Disney/ABC TV Group) Discusses the Accenture Study

The other broadcast networks also have made a spirited defense of TV advertising. NBCUniversal Advertising Sales and Client Partnerships Chairman Linda Yaccarino presented evidence that premium video delivers 4 times the brand awareness as social media and 11 times more than short-form video. The message is that premium video is essentially a different product than digital advertising. The value and engagement levels make digital a much less appealing prospect. [ (( David Lieberman, “NBCU Ad Chief Blasts Digital Platforms For Links To “Objectionable” Content,” Deadline, May 15, 2017, http://deadline.com/2017/05/nbcu-ad-chief-blasts-digital-platforms-links-objectionable-content-upfront-1202093635/.))] CBS Research chief David Poltrack in December 2017 offered an even stronger position by asserting that TV is in a growth period, arguing for the health of TV advertising. [ (( Dade Hayes, “CBS Research Guru David Poltrack Sees “Bright Future Ahead” For Broadcast TV,” Deadline, December 4, 2017, http://deadline.com/2017/12/cbs-research-guru-david-poltrack-sees-bright-future-ahead-for-broadcast-tv-1202219492/.))] Admitting that measuring audience is still a challenge, Poltrack argued that ‘digital powerhouses’ (Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple and Netflix) are still placing their marketing money in television. [ (( Jeanine Poggi, “CBS Has a Much Different Forecast for TV Advertising Than Agencies Do,” AdAge, December 4, 2017, http://adage.com/article/media/tv-ad-sales/311508/.))] Vouching for the value of TV advertising, Poltrack commented, “Why would you fund your new experimental work with money from the element of your marketing program that has proven to lift return on investment higher than other parts?” [ (( Brian Steinberg, “CBS Makes Pitch To Keep TV Advertising Dollars From Moving To Digital,” Variety, December 8, 2014, http://variety.com/2014/tv/news/cbs-makes-pitch-to-keep-tv-advertising-dollars-from-moving-to-digital-1201373770/.))] The point is a valid one, but swipes aside a set of other issues: how has cross platform viewing impacted engagement and brand recall of TV advertising? What are the demographic differences (especially among millennials) present in consuming TV advertising? How do ‘cord nevers’ even expect TV advertising to be part of their entertainment equation?

David Poltrack, Chief Research Officer, CBS Corporation, Positive About the Future of Television

‘That’s (TV Advertising) Entertainment!’

Being loyal to their company or optimistic about the future of a medium which has shaped multiple generations is, of course, entirely acceptable. And perhaps the issues surrounding digital advertising are warranted. The real argument may not be digital vs. television advertising, but rather how our contemporary society engages with advertising as part of their media consumption. The days of considering how DVRs impact ad recall and viewership seem quaint in comparison. Speaking at a forum in December 2017, NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt offered a harsher assessment of television advertising: “Consumers hate advertising. People are running away from advertising in droves, and so that, to me, is the crux of the problem. How do we stop that from happening?…We have to figure out a ways to make those interruptions a lot more palatable, a lot more entertaining, a lot more relational, or they’re going to keep going. And going and going and going.” [ (( Dade Hayes, “NBC’s Bob Greenblatt: “People Are Running Away From Advertising In Droves,” Deadline, November 28, 2017, http://deadline.com/2017/11/nbcs-bob-greenblatt-people-are-running-away-from-advertising-in-droves-1202215615/.))]

NBCU’s Bob Greenblatt Offers Harsh Words on Advertising

Greenblatt’s call-to-action is inspiring since it renews the proposition that advertising, television or digital, needs to have an entertainment quotient as well as a communicative one. What are the implications of this? Clearly, advertising should be compelling on the level of storytelling and emotional engagement. Those are just points of entry for any advertising. Even more persuasive are those moments when advertising can break free of the formal qualities, TV or digital. Experimenting with single show sponsorships, in-show sponsor-related content, and limited commercial interruptions illustrate the ways through which a network can balance internal brand building and alignment of the entertainment brand with the commercial brand. These kinds of formal experiments with program, advertising, and venue may at least lead toward shifting the model of viewer, advertiser, and program content. Perhaps they will also enhance advertising effectiveness beyond the silos of television and digital advertising.

In some limited ways, these experiments in the model of viewer, advertiser and program are already ongoing. FX Networks CEO John Landgraf, for instance, focuses on the long-term brand building of network through its shows rather than on Nielsen ratings. As Landgraf comments on his strategy, “I don’t have to measure success based on who watched it today but rather what it meant to people.” [ (( Dade Hayes, “FX Chief John Landgraf: ‘I Remain Skeptical About Social Media’ Driving TV Viewing,” Deadline, September 28, 2017, http://deadline.com/2017/09/fx-landgraf-skeptical-about-social-media-1202178980-1202178980/.))] FX launched FX+, through Comcast, in September 2017 allowing viewers to watch commercial free versions of FX shows at the same time the shows are airing on FX. In addition, FX’s past series are also available as part of the service. [ (( Josef Adalian, “FX’s Subscription Service FX+ Is a Big Step Toward TV’s Unbundled Future,” Vulture, August 7, 2017, http://www.vulture.com/2017/08/fx-announces-streaming-subscription-service-fx.html.))] Following an earlier experiment by AMC (AMC Premium), FX+ offers consumers an alternative to commercial entertainment without any delays or dilution to the brand. The FX/FX+ example is offered not as a prescription to solve the issues with advertising consumption, but just as one strategy to reconsider how viewers interact with content and advertising within media. Further trials in the form and structure of advertising are needed to ensure the development of media advertising. The scuffle of television vs. digital advertising should not replace the more global issue of how advertising will function in the context of mass media entertainment.

Image Credits:
1. eMarketer’s Projection: US Total Media Ad Spending Share, by Media, 2014-2020 (% of total)
2. BeetTV: Project By ABC, Accenture Sees Understatement Of Multiplatform TV ROI
3. David Poltrack, Chief Research Officer, CBS Corporation, Positive About the Future of Television
4. NBCU’s Bob Greenblatt Offers Harsh Words on Advertising

Please feel free to comment.

Separated at Birth?

by: Justin Wyatt / ABC Television Network

The Andy Milonakis Show

Andy Milonakis

MTV’s The Andy Milonakis Show presents an overly-enthusiastic, chubby ‘teenage’ host from a rather bleak New York locale creating his own half-hour weekly makeshift show, complete with appearances by his pets, neighbors, and various household objects. At once curious and deeply disturbing, the show fascinates for presenting the silly and seemingly innocent musing of a pre-pubescent, albeit one equipped with MTV cameras and CGI effects. While at first glance the show’s crazy hi-jinks and pratfalls dominate, in a hit-and-miss kind of way, The Andy Milonakis Show actually harbors something deeper and more profound — dare I say, a wistful appreciation for human potential and folly, all set in a cramped apartment in New York.

Milonakis’ cult fame began online with his many short ‘films,’ most notably ‘The Superbowl is Gay’ in which ‘folk singer’ Andy flatly defines the Superbowl, as well as a myriad of other obsessions and household items as ‘gay.’ This debasement is at first funny, in a sub-sophomoric manner, then dull, then almost exhausting as it continues on with its litany of ‘gay’ things. (It’s available on iFilm.com and currently ranked #6 among comedy clips). This curious brand of humor was repeated in several dozen more of his online shorts. Milonakis also emerged from the stable of occasional characters on Jimmy Kimmel Live, ABC’s late night talk show hosted by the acerbic former Man Show co-host. Kimmel continues as co-producer of Andy’s new show.

The format for Andy’s show is very similar week-to-week. Man-on-the-street interviews alternate with skits in Andy’s apartment and an occasional foray into nearby parks and neighborhood locations. The one-on-one interviews are actually more like ambushes on old, often deeply out-of-it residents who barely get to utter a word or two in response to Andy’s jubilant pronouncements. “Your smile looks like rainbows!” he screams at a bedraggled senior barely able to move let alone mimic rainbows. As with most of these encounters, Andy barely waits for a response before skipping away merrily.

Most of the ‘action’ takes place in Andy’s apartment. He apparently lives alone, despite being a teenager and acting much of the time years younger. Most often the show revolves around Andy’s obsession with food or with small pranks enacted in the apartment. For instance, one recurring segment has Andy greeting a take-out delivery person with some unusual circumstance — such as meeting a tied up Andy or being the recipient of a fake coupon obviously stenciled in crayon. Additionally, Andy’s pets, especially his beloved dog Woobie, are also an ongoing concern. Usually Woobie is imbued with magic powers, and Andy has to coax Woobie off the ceiling or reprimand him for using his telekinetic powers inappropriately. The rest of the show is essentially random: neighbors drop by to borrow household items, Andy dresses up cats as ‘Satan Kitty’ and ‘Jesus Kitty’ and visits with the even more obese Cousin Ralphie. On occasion, a guest star will also come by, usually in an utterly fantastic and unbelievable manner: Snoop Dogg makes Andy substitute for him in an interview since they ‘look so much like each other’ and John Stamos, submissive as a little kitten, needs Andy and a local fireman’s help once he is stuck high in a tree (unfortunately John Stamos turns out to be rabid and must be shot after hugging Andy).

Of course, the show follows in the well-worn tradition of sketch comedy projected through a precocious child star a la Mason Reese from The Mike Douglas Show fame in the 1970s. Yet, The Andy Milonakis Show holds greater appeal for me. It’s been one of those shows that I actually remembered later in a fond way. Why? For me, the show taps into some different chords that always resonate. For one, the minimal aesthetic and evocation of the everyday offer boundaries that let Andy’s creativity run wild. By setting the space of the action primarily within the confines of Andy’s apartment, Andy is ‘forced’ to invent, to turn everyday objects and actions into the realm of the extraordinary. At first this may seem banal, but rest assured that Andy creating a drama from, for example, competing peanut butter jars and salsa truly does hold interest. An extended skit on the ‘uses of spoons’ illustrates all the different food and non-food items that you can place in your mouth through the inspired use of a spoon. Continuing the tour of the banal, Andy offers us ‘how water is made’ — a quick shot of his hand turning a faucet, nothing more. In some ways, Andy celebrates the quotidian almost offering a New York/MTV perspective on those whose work shines light on the ‘beauty’ within the banality of daily life. Is it heresy to mention Andy Milonakis in the same breath as the masters of the quotidian such as Andy Kaufman, Chantal Akerman (Jeanne Dielman) and Krzysztof Kieslowski (Three Colors trilogy)? Anyway, Andy is able to make his stifling environment seem most provocative and compelling in a completely child-like (and childish) way.

Andy Milonakis

The Andy Milonakis Show

At its core though, a large part of the appeal of the show derives from its very absurdity: the fact that this chubby, exuberant apparent teenager warrants his own show and that these very minor stunts and gags constitute ‘entertainment.’ The absurd nature of the enterprise is multiplied when one discovers that Andy Milonakis is, apparently, an adult — born in January 1976. Andy’s age has been one of the canniest publicity ploys of the show, with Andy sidestepping the issue by claiming to be “between 10 and 30.” Julian Dibbell of The Village Voice set the record straight: “For one thing, this overweight teen is in fact a 29 year old with a growth disorder.” (Julian Dibbell, “Yay Wacktards!”) This uncovering has created a veritable firestorm online – check out ‘Andy Milonakis Age Rumor’ or the endless speculations in the lively discussion on Katie’s Blog. The postings are definitely polarized — from thinking that this is a betrayal (‘sobrino’ writes, “He sucks, doesn’t he freak ya’ll out a 29 yr old guy running around town harassing old people. It was funny when I thought he was 12 but 29, c’mon get a job! What a loser’) to evidence of Andy’s amazing talent. Someone aptly dubbed ‘andy_milonakis_Lover’ chimes in, “What’s up people!? Yeah, at first I was getting irritated at this show but then I found myself laughing. Now I think it is sheer genius, especially since I found out today that Andy is 29 years old.”

Suddenly, what was endearing and cute in a young teen becomes bizarre when enacted by a 29 year old. The connection of Andy to the lineage of Mason Reese, Gary Coleman and Danny Bonaduce is severed. Suddenly, Andy becomes a millenial variant of Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk from the late 70s or, perhaps more precisely, another Pee Wee Herman, with a more subdued ‘playhouse.’ Nevertheless, the show becomes increasingly jarring when you realize that this ‘kid’ or ‘teenager’ is, in fact, an adult who is so in touch with his inner child that the performance is eerie, regardless of any physical or developmental issues. If Andy was, in fact, a teen or pre-teen, the antics would smack of youthful enthusiasm. Since Andy is an adult pushing 30, the dynamic is more complex: he evokes youthful enthusiasm through his humor but the jokes are not really funny enough by themselves to be entertaining or to justify their existence. A large part of the absurdity derives from how precisely Andy is able to evoke being a mischievous imp on the verge of adolescence. The confused logic and bizarre juxtapositions that seem wonderful and transgressive to a pre-teen are entirely preserved by Andy. The convoluted and largely absent logic is perfectly encapsulated by these lines from Andy’s theme song:

“Pancake on my face makes me extra happy I like shampoo bottles that sit on my lappy ‘Cause it’s my show you can’t tell me what to do When life hands me lemons, I make beef stew.”

Apart from Andy’s appreciation for the everyday and his streak of absurdity, the show fascinates also for the essential optimism and positive outlook personified by Andy. His love for food, his neighbors, and, of course, his pets is infused throughout the show. The end result is a hero who comes off as so young that he is oblivious to all stresses and life challenges. In Andy’s universe, all revolves around him and the world is just fine. While Andy’s random comments bewilder the neighbors on the street, they are never designed to humiliate, taunt, or embarrass. In fact, the humor seems based on creating a separation between ‘Andy as child’ and the rest of the adult world. By positioning himself as a child, Andy is exempt rules of decorum and behavior from the adult world, and this exemption is the basis for much of the humor.

As with many ‘obsessions,’ to uncover the source of fascination is to destroy much of the fun. After watching the first episode, I was left wondering why I had chosen to DVR all the remaining shows. After much reflection, my mind returned over and over again to another media event: Peter Hall’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, presented at the Arts Theatre in London last year. Beckett’s masterpiece is centered on Winnie, a middle-aged woman, who prattles on endlessly about matters small and large while sinking into the earth under an unbearable sun. Winnie clutches her parasol and rifles through her purse, playing with her toothbrush, her hair comb and other items. Winnie’s body is increasingly obscured by the earth as the play progresses — she is, in effect, being buried alive at a slow pace. Despite this awful trajectory, Winnie maintains complete optimism and courage. Relying on the objects around her and her amazingly positive attitude, Winnie creates her own reality, oblivious to the harsh world surrounding her. In effect, Winnie’s everyday life is celebrated despite the strange, surreal circumstances of her predicament. Beckett constructs an absurd situation then normalizes it through Winnie’s everyday routine and innate resolve.

Could Andy Milonakis be channeling Samuel Beckett? After all, both offer a bizarre premise, the fantastic within the everyday, and the (foolish? courageous?) hope for the future despite overwhelming evidence of a harsh environment. In fact, both Andy and Beckett seem to operate from the Russian Formalist function of art — ‘to defamiliarize our habitual perceptions of the everyday world’ (Kristin Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988: 11). At their core, Sam and Andy make you question your own everyday life and routine through presenting these worlds that are more than a little askew. And, for Andy, that’s not a bad accomplishment for a ‘kid’ who thinks the toaster gets jealous when it’s unplugged so he can use the blender instead.

Image Credits:
1. Andy Milonakis
2. The Andy Milonakis Show

Please feel free to comment.