U.S. Supreme Court Helps Future of Ad Skipping

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday unintentionally struck a victory for consumers who don’t want their time wasted with bad or irrelevant ads. The high court declined to hear a case about digital video recorder technology, thus making it easier for cable systems to offer services that would bring ad skipping systems to more TV watchers.

The case began in 2006 when Cablevision Systems, the New York-area cable operator, made plans to offer a DVR system in which a customer could digitally record a program, say a football game or American Idol, on a server provided by the cable company rather than on the hard drive of an at-home DVR box.

The technology allows an operator like Cablevision to convert existing set-top boxes into ones with DVR capabilities without installing new equipment in millions of homes. It is, most agree, a much more efficient solution to proliferating more DVR boxes.

But programmers like Turner Broadcasting System’s Cartoon Network and CNN had sued Cablevision, charging the system violated copyright law. In March 2007, a lower court agreed, ruling in the opinion that Cablevision “would be engaging in unauthorized reproductions and transmissions of plaintiffs’ copyrighted programs.” Not so fast, ruled the The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, which reversed that decision. The Appellate Court’s ruling is the one that stands now.

Plaintiffs argue that cable systems, by storing the programs remotely, could redistribute them in ways that potentially rob those holding copyrights from their fair share of revenue. That argument didn’t hold much water. Arguing what a party “might do” seldom does. Their real cause, of course, was trying to slow down the penetration of DVRs and DVR-like capability, which consumers use to record programs and skip ads.

Networks and cable operators have yet to crack the code of aiming ads at people that aren’t irrelevant. In other words, they still can’t figure out a way to aim dog food commercials at just people with dogs, and spare the dog-less from 30 seconds of wasted time. I would suggest that is a problem for the networks and cable operators to work out technologically rather than holding poor defenseless dog-less people hostage to watching Alpo ads.

Cablevision said the decision of the court not to hear the case would help make DVRs more accessible, and that programmers and advertisers could, for example, sign agreements allowing Cablevision to insert new ads into recorded content.

Oh Joy. But can I suggest to Cablevision that if that is their plan…might you ask customers to fill out a survey to find out if they own a dog before inserting dog food ads into someone’s recording of The Wizard of Oz. And if customers are going to give you that kind of information, make it worth their while by giving them the service for free, while those who want the service ad-less have to pay for it.

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