I rarely ever channel surf live TV, though when I do I’m consistently amazed at the sheer length and frequency of commercial breaks. The seismic impact of DVRing aside, TV providers have limited if any tools beyond the decades-old “Previous Channel” button to help casual surfers avoid the mind-numbing crush of ads in those rare occasions when clicking around is the entertainment method of choice.
Browsing through the DirecTV channel guide while out of DVR’d shows on a quick lunch break the other day, I thought of a new idea that might infuriate advertisers and networks even as it makes casual browsing just slightly better for viewers.
Imagine your TV provider’s standard channel guide (a screenshot of my DirecTV guide is pictured). Now, imagine a new feature: An icon next to each channel or show name, to appear when that particular channel is currently in the midst of a commercial break. If we want to get negative, the icon could be a red button or perhaps a skull and crossbones; a more moderate icon could be as simple as a megaphone or “Ad break” — anything to provide an immediate and yet subtle visual clue so you can choose to skip past that channel and pick one where that 295th rerun of The Wedding Singer is actually airing.
If TV providers wanted to go a step further and give a nod to the advertisers they were helping viewers avoid, they could potentially even show a logo of the advertiser next to the show name in the guide, updating it live as the ads changed. An even more explicit and potentially mutually beneficial feature would be to show a countdown until the break is over. Sure, a commercial break countdown that still shows 4 minutes left might spur viewers to another option, though a nearly-finished countdown could also tilt the scales towards a few seconds of ad viewing. Since so much of my ad viewing comes via fast-forwarding the ads in DVR’d show, I’m assuming advertisers are already accounting for extremely brief views as part of their ad creation process.
Yes, this would be more visual clutter in the already crowded channel guide user experience, and no, TV providers are not likely to subvert their partners so brazenly. All that said, “heads up” ad break tracking on channel guides could be a useful innovation to a problem that has plagued our lazy weeknights and sick days for generations.