MumbaIn the beginning, there were advertisements between overs. Later, we saw logos on stumps, on bats, on caps, sleeves and yes, even body parts. Then, screens began to shrink and we saw “sponsor messages” (their words, not ours) on the left and bottom of the screen. Now, we have logos popping out of pitches when the bowler is getting ready to bowl, logos materializing at the feet of slip fielders, a pen drive-shaped gizmo zooming through the bottom of the screen even as the ball is in play.
The last instance was quite prominent during the recently concluded series between South Africa and India. The intrusive ads irritated not only cricket fans, but the ministry of information and broadcasting (I&B) as well. The mandarins there issued a show-cause notice to Ten Cricket, the broadcaster, asking why its licence shouldn’t be cancelled since it violated the advertising code prescribed in the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995 and Rules.
It was pushed to do so by several complaints from viewers, who were upset enough by the intrusive commercials to write and call the ministry. They received over 104 responses from individuals after the show-cause was issued.
“The spirit of the rule is that it (ads) should not interfere with the viewing experience,” a ministry official said.
The code says that “all advertising should be clearly distinguishable from the programme and should not in any manner interfere with programming, (namely) use of the lower part of screen to carry captions, static or moving, alongside the programme”.
In that series, brands such as Tata DoCoMo, Ambuja Cements, Idea Cellular, Dulux WeatherShield and Tic Tac, among others, were superimposed on the visual frame of the live telecast or run along the side and lower frame—with up to one-third of the screen dedicated to ads, thus truncating the picture, the notice said.
The channel has, in turn, defended itself and maintained that the programme was not truncated and that the ads did not affect the viewing experience.
“This (on-screen ads) is not unique to India, but is a practice adopted by leading sports broadcasters worldwide,” said Joy Chakraborthy, chief revenue officer at Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd, which owns Ten Cricket. He defended the ad placements by referring to the manifold increase in the acquisition cost of telecast rights, “increasing programming cost, input cost and carriage fees”.
The matter is up for review before an interministerial committee headed by the additional secretary of the I&B ministry, but the larger issue is whether viewers have to resign themselves to watching cricket between ads rather than the other way round.
Intrusive brand placements are becoming commonplace as channels try to pay for astronomical broadcast rights with the creative insertion of logos. For instance, ESPN Star acquired the rights to International Cricket Council (ICC) tournaments from 2007-15 for some $1.1 billion (around Rs 5,040 crore today), double what was paid for the previous eight-year period, according to the Cricinfo website. To be sure, the number of matches has also increased now with the addition of new series such as the ICC Twenty20 World Cup.
Telecasters have tried to compensate by increasing ad rates. A 10-second spot for the 2011 World Cup costs Rs 3.5 lakh, double what advertisers paid in the previous edition, according to a media buyer who didn’t want to be named. In the Indian Premier League (IPL) Twenty20 tournament, the increase is steeper. According to another media buyer, a 10-second spot in season 4 of IPL cost Rs 5.5 lakh, nearly four times what advertisers paid in 2008 for the first series.
Clearly, that doesn’t seem to be enough. According to data from TAM Media Research Pvt. Ltd, the India–South Africa series this year had three times the number of on-screen ads compared with a 2006 series played by the same teams. The volume of ads run during over breaks rose 49% from the last series.
This increase seems to work out fine for advertisers. According to Shubha George, chief operating officer at MEC, a media agency, such digital ads—banners or superimposed commercials—can cost as much as 10–second ad spots during India matches. But more often than not, they are much cheaper than 10-second slots.
“There is a thin line, and you try not to fall on to the other side where you’re evoking a negative reaction rather than improving brand salience,” said an executive of Tata Teleservices Ltd, which had placed such ads in the India-South Africa series.
Media buyers say it’s difficult to judge if a particular piece of advertising or innovation, such as a digital insert or superimposition, would be intrusive during a live telecast.
“It can look very different from (what you would see in) a controlled environment,” explained George of MEC.
But more often than not it depends on the contract with the owner of the property, said the business head of a rival sports channel on condition of anonymity.
He explained that the owners would have set guidelines on what broadcasters can and cannot do. The owners are entities such as the International Cricket Council or the Board of Control for Cricket in India, which allowed for branding of sixes and catches during the IPL.