No matter the speed, he's not seeing spots


The more we try to escape commercials, the closer they get.

If, like me, you're one of millions of Americans under the impression that using a DVR enables you to skip ads, the TV industry offered another reminder last week that we're deluded.

Beth Comstock, president of integrated media at NBC Universal, told attendees at an event hosted in New York by the Association of National Advertisers that "when people fast-forward commercials on a DVR, they're scanning the commercials, eyeing the logos at the end of the commercials (and) registering the price in the auto ad" (HR 3/22).

Comstock -- whose last name must have been created by a branding firm given that her job is ensuring NBC Uni's digital properties deliver revenue -- attributed her findings to unique "neurophysiological" research measuring brain waves and eye tracking of TV viewers.

It's not the first time the broadcasters have floated this counterintuitive theory. Two years ago, CBS research guru David Poltrack reported that consumer retention of commercials viewed in fast-forward was better than when viewed in regular speed.

If only there was a neurophysiologist on hand to offer a snapshot of my own brain activity upon hearing this information. The synaptic fireworks on display in some deep recess of my cerebrum would allow modern science to pinpoint the location of a heretofore mythical mental filter known as a "b.s. detector."

Not since Dick Cheney's recent contention that the British military withdrawal from Iraq was indicative of how well things are going in that region has a statement left me this stupefied.

Leave it to the TV industry to argue that ad-skipping is actually just a different form of engagement. Given how this technology is eroding the very lifeblood of the business -- ad revenue -- perhaps there is no choice but to hold up such a tortured rationalization.

And yet I have to concede that there is something strangely seductive to the logic. A viewer has to pay attention to the screen and use hand-eye coordination via remote control to skip past commercials, which stream by in a rushed blur.

Still, the coherence of the marketing message from a jumbled torrent of images is questionable. And then there is the context to consider: Do marketers want their brands linked to the viewers' prevailing mental state of avoidance?

But let's put aside my skepticism for a moment and have faith that the broadcasters are on to something here. There are implications to the audience's newfound ability to speed-watch.

For one thing, apparently audio is a needless extravagance in commercials. Given that fast-forward mode is silent, think of all the millions Madison Avenue will save on sound production. And talent agencies should launch divisions devoted to representing mimes.

Speed-watching also takes the sting out of another bit of bad news the TV industry got this week. Nielsen Media Research reported that the average viewer still watches little more than 15 channels for at least 10 minutes per week despite the fact that the total number of channels continues to grow (now at 106.4 in the average home).

But that's faulty methodology, because 10 minutes is like several lifetimes in the new math of media consumption. Given my speed-watching superpowers, what might seem like aimless channel surfing is in fact highly attuned viewing time. You'd be surprised what I can retain in the millisecond I flip past, say, Fox Reality Channel.

As an amateur scientist in my spare time, I decided to test the speed-watching hypothesis. Unbeknownst to my innocent wife, I began alternating between fast-forward and regular-speed play of commercial pods during a recent episode of "Lost." When the episode concluded, I asked nonchalantly, "Do you remember any of the commercials?"

She thought for a moment and replied, "Not a one."

And there you have it. The ugly truth is most viewers probably don't recall commercials played at any speed.