Make sure your spots are running as you expect.
Quick disclaimer: This is one of those posts with the true intention of helping all parties. High definition TVs have become mainstream, but merging all of the technologies involved means that sometimes commercials aren’t running as designed. Everyone involved wants the best result every time. More eyes, and more awareness will help.
Here’s the quick math from Nielsen: 718,930 TV Households in Hampton Roads. Around 75% of those households have at least one TV that’s high-definition enabled (widescreen, 16:9 aspect ratio), and 77% subscribe to some type of HD subscription service (cable, satellite, Netflix, Chromecast, etc.). So if you’re a TV advertiser, the vast majority of households are watching your commercials in HD on a widescreen format.
But are your spots always filling the screen? Are you using the full real estate your spot was produced to fill?
According to some of the market’s most prolific videographers and producers, nearly ALL the video produced for commercial TV for the past several years has been shot in HD and produced in widescreen format for HDTV. Yet I find it amazing the number of spots that appear on HD channels that are either “clipped” on both sides, reducing the image to the smaller, standard definition (SD, 4:3 aspect ratio) image, or reduced in all directions, creating a “postage stamp” impact with a black frame all the way around.
Why does it happen? How do you avoid it? How can you make sure it doesn’t happen to you? Well, the bottom line is the only practical way to really know it’s NOT happening is to keep a human eye on your spot schedule as it runs.
Because cable and satellite providers still carry some channels in SD at the old 4:3 aspect ratio, advertisers either need to provide a version of their commercials that have been edited down to the SD width, or allow the broadcaster/cable
system to shrink the entire image to fit, which results in the “letterbox” black bars at the top and bottom of the image. Since some programs, and even some ads, run intentionally this way, you may well be conditioned to not even notice.
According to Mark Johnson, Chief Engineer at WAVY-TV, the problem can happen a couple of different ways. 1) Since all
commercials are digital files, they must be uploaded, labeled and encoded properly by the advertiser, production house, or agency. Then the directions or “tags” need to be accurate as to which version of which spot runs where. 2) The proper spots must be loaded into the commercial insertion systems with the proper directions. When a system finds a mis-match it defaults to “fill” the screen, top or bottom, with those black bars that, to me, symbolize wasted screen space and wasted ad dollars. The other factor that can affect how spots (and programs) look on air is actually how the viewer has his/her own screen formatted, which none of us can really control.
“All of the spots are looked at before they go on air” said Johnson, “but we can’t always tell how the advertiser intended the spot to look.” Cutch Armstrong, Director of Marketing and Client Solutions at Cox Media Virginia, says that each spot is uploaded to the Cox system in Atlanta and viewed by technicians before airing. With both Cox and WAVY, as well as most video providers, the file upload process goes through servers located centrally (national or regional locations) and are added to the schedule through an automated process.
The bottom line is, if a spot is running counter to how the advertiser expects, the first time anyone notices may be when the spot runs live.
Armstrong says it best, “Everyone wants the best possible result. They want their stuff to run perfectly every time.” But the systems can create difficulties. “Cable systems and broadcast networks require certain ‘codecs’ [file types] in order to be compliant with the diverse format standards set by the networks.” Most stations or outlets post the requirements and codecs on their websites and can tell when a file is uploaded improperly (Armstrong sent me an 11-page document, as well as a one-sheeter that Cox Media uses.)
So preventing it comes down, quite simply, to attention to detail. The computer systems do not malfunction; they respond to incorrect inputs and the result is painful. Spots have to be produced, labeled, trafficked, scheduled and inserted properly. I’ve resisted the temptation to add actual examples to this post, because this is not intended to be a finger-pointing exercise. It does happen often, and if you want examples email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The only way you know it happens is if you see the spot run. I guarantee, if it happens the broadcaster or operator wants to know. Cox (who also handles commercial insertion for Verizon in Hampton Roads) has set up a specific inbox, VAStopClipping@cox.com, for customers to notify the operator of any problems. We’ve actually created systems to monitor and spot check schedules for clients. It is possible to receive actual air-checks of every spot that runs from third-party services such as Kantar Media or Media Monitors, but the cost could obliterate the ROI of your campaign. Instead, have someone set up spot checks of your schedule on various channels using a DVR, then scan the spot breaks and verify that the spots are running correctly.
Of course human error happens, and a spot that runs in the wrong aspect ratio is not a wasted spot. But until HD formats completely replace SD and until one universal codec becomes standard, the potential problem will exist, and as an advertiser you want to maximize every inch of the screen.