Yesterday Variety reported that for Super Bowl 50 in February, 2016, CBS will run all of the same ads from its broadcast of the game in its live-stream of the game. In effect, Super Bowl advertisers will be required to buy the online spots, which CBS is using in part to justify higher rates vs. what NBC charged in 2015. The approach is a departure from the past few Super Bowls which have been streamed, but where the broadcast TV network sold the online spots separately from the TV spots.
It’s tempting to see CBS’s move as a coming-of-age for live-streaming and a “Big Moment” for online video advertising. But as I see it there are at least 5 reasons why this is actually neither, and in reality actually has some drawbacks and carries some risk:
1. Small online audience means minimal online views - In an age where viewers are increasingly watching on-demand on whatever screen they choose, the Super Bowl is truly the last big appointment TV event that viewers want to see on the big screen. Though online viewership has grown over the past several Super Bowls, in 2015 it still averaged just 800K viewers, or .7% of the record 114.4 million who tuned in on TV. Talk about a rounding error.
That’s not to take away from the CBS's and other networks’ correct decision to make the game available online. But it does remind us that CBS’s decision to include the ads in the live-stream doesn't mean a huge number of incremental views for advertisers.
2. Small online audience unlikely to drive cross-platform measurement - There is much hand-wringing these days about how to standardize measurement of ads across platforms to keep up with shifting viewership changes. While a lot of hard work is going into solving this, and CBS’s decision to live-stream the ads could be seen as an accelerant, the reality is that the Super Bowl’s small online audience, combined with it being a one-time event, means it is unlikely to meaningfully help the process of standardizing cross-platform measurement.
3. Importance of in-game airing of ads is diminishing - The last few years have brought a seismic shift in the value of the actual in-game airing of a Super Bowl ad. Gone is the era when advertisers sought a big reveal of their ad during the game and viewers breathlessly awaited their arrival. Instead, savvy advertisers are increasingly releasing their spots early online to build social buzz and viewership. And for many ads, viewership in post-game online galleries now account for a bigger number of views than the in-game spot. These trends are sure to continue, and part of why I forecast years ago that Super Bowl ads were on their way to costing $10 million apiece (CBS is reportedly asking close to $5 million).
4. Online ads will be the same as on TV, undercutting online’s uniqueness - There’s actually a downside to live-streaming the same TV ads online, which is that any unique attribute an online-specific ad may have enjoyed (e.g. calls-to-action, interactive overlays, geo customization, etc.) will be foregone. As a result, CBS is depriving advertisers who want their spots to go beyond TV’s traditional brand-building role to do so. CBS is also depriving itself of the opportunity to capture higher CPMs and additional value that online offers.
5. Live-streaming’s flakiness could set back perception of online video advertising - Last year’s live-stream of the Super Bowl suffered from widespread problems like buffering, significant delays and social media spoilers, underscoring how flaky live-streaming can still be. Meanwhile, after investing heavily in their creative, Super Bowl advertisers expect A+ delivery of their ads. If CBS has quality problems with its live-stream too, advertisers will be justifiably upset, driving the perception that online is not ready for primetime. That would be a set back for the industry that has worked hard to entice TV ad dollars to shift.
Don’t get me wrong - I think streaming the Super Bowl is something networks should be doing. But I just don’t see how including the ads in the live-stream is that big a deal. And it also has some drawbacks and risks. CBS may be able to use online distribution as a way of squeezing extra money out of advertisers, but my guess is that will be a stretch.