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When it Comes to Video Ad-Blockers, Don’t Pity the Publishers

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Have online publishers learned nothing from the ad-blocker problem?

Ad-blocker use is growing, letting many people avoid video and display ads. Naturally, this angers the ad community, where reactions range from, “Ad-blockers are pirates,” to, “We need to do a better job.”

That second reaction, the mea culpa approach, has been embraced by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), which says viewers are reacting to an unpleasant ad environment that publishers created. The IAB has chosen to fight ad-blockers with acronyms. First, there was DEAL (Detect blockers, Explain the value, Ask for Change, and Limit access [or Lift restrictions]). When that didn’t do the trick, the IAB tried LEAN (keep ads Light, Encrypted, AdChoice-supported, and Non-invasive).

Authenticated over-the-top (OTT) apps for premium video have taken off this year, now that Nielsen can measure their views and publishers can monetize streamed programs. While the amount of catch-up content has risen, so have connected TV ad loads.

In my testing of broadcast and cable network Roku apps, I found commercial ad breaks are nearly as long as with linear video. Breaks can include six commercials at a time, and they usually can’t be skipped. Even worse, I often see the same ads with every break. Didn’t we all agree that’s a bad practice?

Publishers can get away with offering terrible OTT ads now, because there’s no way for viewers to block OTT ads. But that could change. There might be a hacker right now close to a solution. And when that solution becomes popular and viewers can easily block connected TV ads, publishers will stomp their feet and cry that this is piracy. And they’ll ignore how they created the problem in the first place.

Unlike with broadcast television, OTT publishers and advertisers can target viewers. They have an idea who’s watching and what their demographics and preferences are. That leads to a higher value for streamed ads. If publishers can get more for connected TV ad breaks, they should make the experience pleasant and stream fewer ads. But that isn’t happening.

So how dim are the executives in charge? Again I wonder, have they learned nothing from ad-blockers?

“The industry has learned quite a bit, and I think in a short amount of time,” says Alanna Gombert, managing director and general manager of the IAB Tech Lab. “The biggest thing that I have seen that has come out of the ad-blocking debacle is a strong resolve amongst the trade associations—the 4A’s [American Association of Advertising Agencies], the ANA [Association of National Advertisers], and the IAB, as well as the participants they each represent—to have different and new conversations about working together to fix user experience issues within advertising.”

I’m sure having everyone at the table for a conversation is an important first step, but it feels like it’s dragging on. What can we expect besides conversations?

“There will be more robust criteria coming out that will also apply to connected television— things like frequency capping. There’s different terminology for it depending on what medium you’re talking about, but at the end of the day, [the problem of] showing an ad 50 times to one person is part of this initiative we’re working on,” Gombert says.

Those recommendations should be out soon, and they sound good until you remember that IAB recommendations aren’t mandatory. There’s no organization that can stop broadcasters from filling their streams with bloated, repetitive ad breaks.

Depending on what side of the issue you’re on, you can either root for the publishers to get some sense and rein in their connected TV ad loads before it’s too late, or you can root for that lone hacker creating a connected TV ad-blocker right now. Either way, the results are the same: Online ad loads are sure to come down.

[This article appears in the October 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "Don’t Pity the Publishers."]

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