The streaming platforms are a major part of this year’s US TV’s Upfronts landscape, with more options for advertisers than any other year. But the audience experience of advertising within streaming platforms is stuck in an outdated, intrusive broadcast model. Scott Donaton, CMO of entertainment gaming company Versus, believes marketers and streamers can help develop a better alternative.

Streaming has changed nearly everything about how audiences interact with TV content, from when and where they watch it to how they discover and engage with the shows they love. That’s a good thing, the next step in the ongoing transfer of control from the creators and distributors of content to the end users.

This year, streaming usage once again claimed the largest share of TV viewing in the US, with 37.7% share, according to WARC Media. Free ad-supported streaming channels such as Roku, Tubi TV and YouTube, had a particularly strong performance. That has opened up opportunities for marketers to use CTV to deliver more targeted TV advertising, as well as opening up more inventory to buy in the US TV upfronts marketplace, where traditionally many US brands commit much of their annual TV advertising spend to the major broadcast and cable players.

share of viewing graph

But despite the empowerment and personalization new technologies allow, there’s one thing about TV viewing these days that (unfortunately) feels depressingly familiar: the advertising experience. 

For the most part, that model remains stuck, not just in an earlier decade but another century. It’s the same intrusive approach to advertising that’s existed since the earliest days of radio and TV. Brands interrupt the stories people have chosen to spend time with – stories they are eager to immerse themselves in – to peddle their wares. It’s the equivalent of someone walking up to two people having a conversation at a dinner party and with no idea of what’s being discussed waving their arms and interrupting the chat to talk about themselves and how great they are. It’s uninvited, unwanted and annoying.

We must do better.

The advertising value exchange is still an option many agree to. Those who can afford to pay a premium for advertising-free media experiences usually do. But a large portion of any mass audience still chooses to have their media access partially or fully subsidized by ads. Advertising makes those offerings viable and helps fund the creation of the shows they love. Many of those viewers are also willing to try new forms of advertising; 42% of CTV users find interactive ads of interest, according to a recent LG Ad Solutions survey of more than 1,100 US CTV owners.

Also, if you’re a brand marketer, advertising works. Putting your brand in front of a receptive audience does convey the benefits and desirability of your products, and gives valuable information to potential customers. The intent here isn’t to villainize ads; it’s to ask the people who spend billions of dollars making and distributing ads to do better.

When I was interviewing to join Hulu in 2019, I had a conversation with its then-CEO Randy Freer about branded content, since that was one area I would oversee at the streamer. As we talked, Randy said, “I don’t need you to make better things for our advertisers; I need you to make better things for our viewers.”

That sentence struck me deeply. That’s what we’re talking about here: making better things for audiences. Because they deserve it. We owe it to them to use technology and creativity to craft better experiences.

We did that at Hulu by teaming with brands to develop long-form content and through innovations such as pause ads and binge ads that took advantage of (and even rewarded) existing behaviors. Some of those formats have been copied by other streamers as they’ve added ad-supported tiers. But too often brands fall back on buying traditional interruptive TV spots whether they’re running on basic cable or a streaming service.

Streamers have so much data on how people behave and what they do while watching. That data has already been used to discover and fill programming gaps and to maximize engagement and retention. Now streamers need to take what they know and put it to use in service of creating a better, more relevant and personalized advertising experience.

Super Bowl viewers have come to embrace commercials in the game as part of the entertainment package. Readers of Vogue’s September issue see the ads in that edition as being as crucial to the experience of discovering what’s new in fashion as the editorial pages. We need to find that equivalent in TV and other media forms.

What can streamers do based on what they know to create a better viewing experience? Why aren’t more brands taking presenting sponsorship roles and presenting ad-free episodes? That might also be a step back into the past, but it would be a welcome one.

Versus, the company I recently joined, taps the power of AI to gamify content and make fandom more fun and rewarding. For our partners, that leads to deeper engagement and better retention. And those games integrate advertising in a way that is seamless and contextual.

Imagine if the sponsor of a streaming show used what we now think of as a commercial break to ask viewers to answer challenges about what they think will happen in the plot or about the fate of a particular character? Wouldn’t that kind of ad tie a brand more closely to the content people love – as they are consuming it – and create a more fun experience for audiences? This isn’t the only answer, and we’re not the only ones trying to solve this challenge. There’s been a resurgence in interest in branded entertainment, with more advertisers teaming with Hollywood and creators to tell stories worthy of people’s time and attention. The Oscar-winning producer Michael Sugar, founder of entertainment company Sugar23, is even trying to disrupt the Upfronts by teaming with A-list talent to launch “The Way Upfronts,” an event dedicated to focusing brands on long-form content creation.

If the industry gets this right, it creates better, more engaging and less interruptive experiences for audiences, innovative ways for brands to communicate their stories and a profitable economic model for media companies. That would be a true win-win-win.