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Yankee Southpaw Andy Pettite fires his signature cut fastball. Juan Pierre of the Marlins shortens up on his bat for a bunt. It's 7:57 p.m. on Oct. 25, and Game 6 of the World Series is under way in the Bronx. Some 20 miles to the west, in the New Jersey suburbs, an ardent 15-year-old fan leaves the TV off and heads out to a diner for a piece of pie.
This is my son, Jack. He's giving the game a head start. In about an hour, he'll watch all the action on TiVo (TIVO
), the personal videorecorder. Through the course of the game, he'll race past the ads. And if he plays it just right, he'll catch up to real time on Fox (FOX
) just as the Marlins' Josh Beckett tags out Jorge Posada to end the Series.
Jack sits slumped on the couch, TiVo control firmly in hand. I look on from the easy chair beside him, and it hits me that the way a 15-year-old watches the World Series on TiVo -- what he chooses to see and what he skips -- could color the future of the sport, not to mention TV. He's in a minority of 1.5% of all viewers now. But Forrester Research Inc. (FORR
) estimates that within four years, 27.4 million U.S. households, nearly one-quarter of those with TV sets, will have TiVo-like capabilities, most of them through their cable and satellite hookups. Ad-zapping, warns Jon Nesvig, Fox's president of sales, "could strip away the underpinning" of televised baseball. "It's a cloudy future," he says.
But not a problem this year. As Fox's baseball ratings soared, advertisers dished out $325,000 for each 30-second ad -- up 8% from last year. And the impact from potential ad zappers is still negligible. Some 40% of them, says Forrester, don't even bother skipping the ads. I'm guessing that those are people like my wife, who barely watches TV and can't be bothered with mastering another remote.
Jack is a different story. He controls the flow of the game. To be obliged to watch an ad, in his mind, is to fail. As the game progresses, he monitors a green bar that indicates how far behind real time he is. That line represents his TiVo cushion. It's his time stash, which protects him from advertisements. With each zapped ad, the cushion gets a bit thinner. He builds it back up by pausing the action to raid the refrigerator or by replaying highlights again and again.
Sometimes he miscalculates. He hits the forward button, and the TiVo makes an ominous Bong! That means he has caught up to real time. Does he settle back and watch the game with the rest of baseball-loving humanity? No way. He puts it on hold and flips to other programming recorded on TiVo, usually The Simpsons. He watches that for 10 or 15 minutes, rebuilding his strategic buffer against the onslaught of ads before returning to the action. The worst TiVo experience of the Series was the 39-minute rain delay in Game 3. That flattened his time cushion and left him shifting uneasily between The Simpsons and live baseball for much of the evening. That night I think he watched an ad or two.
How will advertisers reach tomorrow's viewers like Jack? They're already busy pumping ads and product placements into the game itself. Watch a game on TiVo, and you see the announcers answering an opinion survey on their Sprint PCS (PCS
) cell phones. Viagra messages beam from a digital billboard behind the catcher. For now, most of these placements are giveaways for advertisers that buy lots of 30-second spots. Can they eventually bring in serious revenue? It's anybody's guess, says Fox's Nesvig.
To pull it off, advertisers will have to address a generation of viewers who see the game less as a real-time event than as a personal possession. With the remote in hand, Jack owns the game -- and orchestrates it. No fan of the Yankees, he sometimes fast-forwards through their rallies. When pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre trudges to the mound, he jumps ahead 30 seconds. Does Jack disrupt the majestic rhythm of the game? You bet. Like it or not, it's his game now. And it's up to advertisers to create their place in it. By Stephen Baker