Got DPI?

Wed, 05/31/2006 - 8:00pm
Stewart Schley

Before the advertising agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners began applying white mustaches across the lips of celebrities like Kelly Clarkson, milk processors relied on humor to get people to drink more milk. The debut of the iconic "Got Milk?" ad campaign in 1994 featured funny commercials that tormented their actors by depriving them of a cool glass of milk when they thirsted for it most—like after stuffing themselves with Oreos. To reach the right demographic targets, media buyers for the California Milk Processor Board relied on a mix that included "spot" advertising time on cable TV channels in selected geographies around the country.

Stewart Schley
The media strategy made unimpeachable sense, but the task of getting the milk commercials or any other spots to appear on the right cable channels, in the right markets, at the right time, involved an intricate progression of handoffs and trigger points that sometimes seemed to teeter on the brink of disaster. In a ritual repeated in hundreds of markets, an industrial-grade videotape containing commercials made its way via courier to a secured room in a cable TV operations center where a video editor slipped it into a tape deck, and, in accordance with a set of commercial traffic instructions printed on computer paper, copied the 30-second commercial to one or several secondary tapes. The sequence in which the editor arranged the commercials on those secondary tapes was important because it represented exactly the order in which the commercials would be played within local commercial breaks, once provoked by an audible network cue tone. By aligning groups of four 30-second commercials in the proper sequence, and loading the edited tapes into the right playback machines, the editor could be reasonably sure the four commercials would play as intended within the two-minute local advertising breaks made available by networks like ESPN and CNN. Cable operators could save money by devoting one deck to two or more channels—as long as they didn't share the same commercial break times.

Cable companies that were enjoying brisk growth in their local advertising businesses at the time didn't talk publicly about the accuracy rates associated with their tape-based regimen. But it wasn't unusual for 15 percent or more of scheduled spots to run in the wrong slot, or worse, because of mechanical failures, not to run at all.

That changed beginning around 1994 when the cable industry began to replace its tape-based insertion systems with digital advertising platforms. The new systems stored commercials that had been encoded digitally and were converted to analog formats just before being placed within corresponding network availabilities. Gone were multiple-generation degradation problems that used to afflict tape-based operations, and more importantly, the mechanical foul-ups that flustered playback accuracy. Almost immediately, cable advertising managers boasted of spot-placement accuracy rates that approached 99 percent.

Cable's embrace of digital advertising preceded by several years the industry's broader conversion to digital delivery of TV channels. But it didn't happen overnight. John Boland, vice president of market development for ad systems provider C-COR Inc., says it took the cable industry close to 10 years to fully replace its legacy tape-deck advertising systems. In contrast, it has taken only 18 months to convert about a third of the industry to a newer, all-digital approach in which local commercials are married to digital video streams without being converted into analog format at all—at least until they come out the other side of residential set-top boxes. Boland estimates 20,000 of the industry's 60,000 to 70,000 local ad channels have been converted to more facile Gigabit Ethernet-based digital program insertion (DPI) platforms.

Today, when milk advocates or anybody else want to advertise on CNN in Milwaukee, their commercial gets to an operations center over a high-speed terrestrial data or satellite network, not an overnight delivery envelope. It rests in a digital storage vessel where it's available to be fetched and played across any number of channels and geographic subsets known as local advertising "zones." It's a precise and accurate way to accomplish a longstanding goal: getting the right spot to play in the right break at the right time. It has worked so well that in retrospect, the cable industry might have been smart to accelerate its first-generation digital advertising transition rather than stretching it out over nearly a decade. But what's done is done, and complaining about it now seems a bit like crying over you-know-what.

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Author Information
Stewart Schley writes about media and technology from Englewood, Colo.


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