Plate Tectonics and the TV Advertising Business

Jim Nail

 One of the key concepts I learned as a geology major at Williams College comes in very handy when analyzing the changes in the TV advertising business over the past few years. Plate tectonics describes giant slabs of the earth's crust that contain the continents and are propelled by the upwelling of molten layers deep in the earth's core. As plate boundaries grind against each other or are pulled apart by these forces, the mega-structures of the earth are formed: mountain ranges, undersea trenches and ocean basins. The San Andreas Fault is probably the best known example of a plate boundary. For decades, or even centuries, there is no apparent movement but once the massive forces can no longer be contained, the plates can move a dramatic distance within seconds, such as the 1989 Loma Prieta quake which exhibited a 7 foot shift in the position of two plates.

What the heck does this have to do with TV advertising? Just as this plate movement builds up tremendous pressures, so have the forces of technology, advertiser demands for better targeting, and the drift of dollars away from TV to digital put pressure on the TV networks. But just as the plates initially resist moving, there has been little movement in TV advertising: The upfronts last year recovered from the down years of 2014 to 2016, there has been little progress in addressable TV, and Nielsen still reigns as the currency of the market. We've seen the TV business resist these technology-driven pressures for at least a decade, so the question is whether the business will gradually change over the next five to 10 years, or will a San Andreas style quake transform the industry in a matter of months?

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