Which button should I press?
Which one is the easy button?

Television has always been a predominantly passive experience: get comfy on your couch, tune in at the right time (primetime!) and a bevy of good content is about to pour your way especially if you don’t touch that dial. Fast forward to today where remote control dials have largely been replaced by a more active consumer experience: instead of wait and casually browse, we search and operate on our own timetables, on demand. Catering to this shift in viewer behavior is the main advantage of various VOD and OTT systems who are more closely tailored to the search vs. browse than old school MVPD interfaces and remote-control-accessed menus can ever be. But advertising budgets still command a heavy premium on the linear TV side as opposed to its digital cousins, although that gap is shrinking daily. While both are technically addressable media, the flexibility of ad targeting and buying on the digital side is far greater and the promise of granular audience targeting is there for the taking. But never mind the industry view; what does an average viewer think about all this?

To attempt an answer, I decided to concoct an experiment to compare the experience of watching the same content on traditional TV and via online VOD. The premise was rather basic: impersonating your average viewer, I’d watch an episode of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart in the evening when it first airs on cable and then again over VOD the following morning, comparing the ads and my overall viewing experience. For VOD, I opted for Hulu over Comedy Central’s own streaming portal since that seems to be more analogous to how a MVPD operates (e.g. Hulu aggregates content from multiple networks, vs Comedy Central’s service only streams its own; this struck me as a fairer comparison). To make things more equal I watched both of these on the same screen: a beautiful 65” Samsung SmartTV (in the one case via STB, and in the other Hulu Plus over Apple TV), thus putting to bed the old adage that VOD is for small and secondary screens only. So on a Thursday night I settled in on the couch comfortably and started fishing around through hundreds of channels to find Comedy Central.

The results surprised me: on the linear side a total of 25 different ads came hurling my way and I couldn’t discern any particular targeting pattern. Movie promos and trailers led the way with 6 – all for upcoming releases of different genres. The most confusing category was auto: the 5 ads included high-end marques like Jaguar and Infiniti, middle-ground Hondas and Toyotas, and a ‘sponsored by Kia’ spot that kicked off the episode (and was immediately followed by the Infiniti ad). Judging by the ad load Daily Show viewers must be in market for all cars all the time. The rest were fairly run-of-the-mill national campaigns for telco, consumer electronics, insurance services, rounded out by (only?) 1 local ad and 1 PSA.

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Hulu’s interface gives viewers information on how many ads they have left and option to select an ad they’d prefer

On Hulu the following morning (as soon as the content became available), locating the episode took 4 quick taps*. Instead of 25 there were 13 ads, split into a pre-roll and then 3 blocks of 4 ads per. Each block was clearly labeled showing how many ads remaining, countdown to when content will resume, and a menu option to choose a different ad if I wanted. It feels like the viewer has a choice – I’m not passively being fed a stream of ads I don’t particularly care for; I can, at least in theory, do something about what I’m watching. It’s also interesting to note a very different line-up of what I was served: movies and autos were notably absent in favor of food, beverage, services, and pharma. Again, I could not discern a clear targeting pattern other than the ads were clearly (and correctly) skewing female in both creative and topic (e.g. pharma ads were for feminine health issues which is interesting and arguably quite valuable since the audience of the Daily Show tends to skew towards the young male demographic).**

At a glance: breakdown of ads shown against same episode on STB vs digital VOD

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So what conclusions can we draw? From a pure consumer perspective I’m finding it really hard to argue in favor of the linear TV experience. From an industry perspective it doesn’t readily seem we’re taking advantage of the promise of addressability. After all, when it’s the same content and same screen but such a different advertising experience, why not decide what to watch based on the ads alone? It’ll be interesting to see how MVPD’s own attempts at OTT shape up (like Dish’s Sling service) and if they can prove to be truly competitive with the OTT natives like Netflix. One thing is clear: viewers have more video entertainment options than ever before***, and the bar is not measured on content quality alone, but ease of discovery, access, and overall viewer experience (ads included).


*One to switch on Apple TV and 3 to find and play content.

** Here’s a good rundown of Daily Show average audience size and changing demo, all through the lens of Jon Stewart’s impending departure

*** The South-Korean performer Psy of “Gangnam Style” fame at the time of writing commands 8,061,763 subscribers on YouTube. The 2 year old “Gangnam Style” video has been viewed a total of 2,370,147,492 times (that’s more than 2 billion views with a capital B).