- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The game could be a clunker and the halftime show may disappoint, but this year’s Super Bowl undoubtedly will help to usher high-definition programming into the mainstream.

High-definition television sets, live-action freeze frames and digital video recorders will make it easier for viewers to skip the commercials, but a guaranteed U.S. audience of 90 million still makes it worthwhile for companies to pay the estimated $2.5 million that a 30-second spot will cost during Sunday’s ABC telecast, said Michael Giardina, assistant professor of advertising at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

“It’s one of the special media events that transcends the game, and people tune in wanting to watch the advertising,” said Ed Erhardt, president of customer marketing and sales for ESPN and ABC Sports. There’s a “social currency” about Super Bowl Sunday that will be enhanced this year by all the parties centered on consumers’ new HDTVs, he said.

The game has aired in high definition since 2000, but only about a third of last year’s Super Bowl ads were broadcast in HD. This year, more than half of the spots will appear in HD, which should help create a compelling visual experience for the more than 10 million U.S. households with at least one HDTV set. More than 4.7 million HDTV sets were sold in the United States last year alone, according to the NPD Group, a New York research firm.

“It will be the biggest high-definition audience in history because it’s the Super Bowl and more people have the sets. It’s a big party for high definition,” said Phillip Swann, president of TVpredictions.com in Arlington.

But Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis at NPD Group, said that just because millions of people have HD televisions doesn’t mean that they will be watching the game — or the ads — in high definition.

Consumers who did not sign up for HD service from their cable or satellite provider will be watching the game the old-fashioned way. Still, triple-digit growth in sales of flat-panel TV sets — combined with lower prices on large-screen televisions that consumers put in “group viewing areas” — means many viewers will be planted in front of a big-screen HDTV this year, Mr. Rubin said.

Consumers with TiVo and other digital recording devices can store the ads easily and play them whenever they choose.

“It could be the reverse TiVo effect: People will blow off the show to watch the advertising,” said David Perry, director of broadcast production at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, whose sister company developed a bilingual ad in HD for Toyota Motor Corp. that will air during the game.

Other technologies enable fans to freeze the screen during commercials and then fast-forward to the live action. Advertisers can avoid that fate if they take advantage of the sharper images HDTV offers.

“Maybe they’ll make the first five seconds really attention-getting so [viewers] won’t fast forward,” Mr. Swann said. One way new HD ads can do that is by taking advantage of visually compelling locations as opposed to “just watching a guy eat potato chips,” he said.

Mr. Perry, who is also chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ broadcasting production committee, said the proliferation of HD ads this year is almost anticlimactic for industry insiders because TV manufacturers have been trying for a decade to tout the Super Bowl as proof that high-definition technology has become mainstream.

Longtime Super Bowl advertisers will be back selling cars and movies this year, Mr. Erhardt said. Financial firms and insurance companies also bought numerous spots, he said.

Internet businesses bought fewer ads, but CareerBuilder.com will be back with two spots featuring a man working in an office with chimpanzees who would rather play than work. GoDaddy.com, a domain services firm, is hoping to return after causing a stir last year with an ad featuring a scantily clad woman delivering mock testimony before lawmakers.

The Scottsdale, Ariz., company’s commercial for this year’s game again features a buxom model. As of last week, 13 versions of the ad had been rejected by ABC’s Standards and Practices Department, which reviews all TV content before it airs. Both sides said they are optimistic that an agreement will be reached before Sunday.

GoDaddy.com posted various versions of the ad on its Web site for the public to judge. Other companies, including PepsiCo Inc. and Burger King Brands Inc., have incorporated Web sites in their multimedia Super Bowl ad campaigns.

Some big names, including McDonald’s Corp. and Visa USA Inc., are skipping the game this year in favor of the Winter Olympics that begin on NBC five days later. Advertisers can buy a 30-second spot during the Olympics for about $700,000, and they can spread out their ads over two weeks, Mr. Giardina said.

All ad talk aside, will it be the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Seattle Seahawks hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday?

“I want to see a great matchup that Nielsen wins,” said Mr. Erhardt, referring to the company that measures TV audiences.

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