Connected TV Looks to Clean the Slate … and Reclaim Valuable Wasted Real Estate

ESPN slate
(Image credit: ESPN)

If you watch a live, linear show on connected TV these days, it’s only a matter of not very much time before a static on-screen slate, or card, pops up, saying something along the lines of “We’ll Be Right Back.”

David Bloom

(Image credit: David Bloom)

For the industry, such slates signal both nostalgia and missed opportunity when it comes to streaming video in 2021. 

Nostalgia because they’ve been used not only throughout television history, but really, as far back as the early days of the movie business too. I remember being surprised years ago while watching a DVD version of West Side Story to see an “Intermission” slate halfway through the 2.5-hour film (watching all those dancing gang members must have exhausted audiences in 1961). 

But these days, using a slate should also cause a pang of regret for every streaming network executive involved. The slate is stark evidence that the streaming service or one of its distribution partners couldn’t sell a targeted ad for that particular moment to that particular household. It’s a sign of failure, of wasted opportunity. 

Even worse, though the network says it’ll be right back, there’s no guarantee the audience will. Dead air tends to encourage a viewer to look for something else to watch. And they may not return.

The bitter cherry atop this sundae of sorrow, of course, is that the network running the card must still pay something as it streams nothing, even as it loses some portion of its audience. Ouch. 

It’s not just the fault of streaming companies, of course. While advertisers have pivoted notably toward connected TV and free, ad-supported TV channels, they’re not all the way there yet. 

Advertisers still over-index the resources they devote to legacy broadcast and pay-TV networks (print magazines and newspapers, too), at least when compared to the eyeballs still found there. 

So, most connected TV platforms and networks have way more inventory than ads to fill the slots. 

To paper over that hole, the industry pulled out its playbook from 1912 and came up with, “We’ll Be Right Back.” This has been a failure of imagination by an entire industry. There has to be a better way. 

One company that’s trying to innovate here is New York-based Origin, founded in 2019 by two veterans of the E.W. Scripps-owned CTV pioneer Newsy. I talked with CEO Fred Godfrey about the company’s just-announced product, Slate, which is specifically about transforming dead air with bits of content that might actually keep audiences around. 

“It is reprehensible that seven decades (after modern TV began), the only thing that channels are doing is having a slate saying we'll be right back,” Godfrey said. “That's where people churn. That's where people change the channels, where they do anything except stay engaged with the TV. And in a world where fighting for attention in this exploding universe is so important, that can't happen.”

Slate came out of Origin’s first product, Slingshot, which wraps 15 or 30 seconds of additional content before or after a traditional ad running on CTV. That content might be a QR code, or feel-good content on a general topic to get someone better inclined for the brand message to come. 

“We do a lot of brand studies,” Godfrey said. “And we effectively prove that we can bring people's eyeballs and attention back to the TV, because we've dared to ask these big important questions that other people don't want to, which is, ‘Are people even looking?’ And we actually care about that. And we say they're not, and here's the proof, but we can get them looking.”

Slate differs from Slingshot’s ad wrap-arounds, because it’s standalone content that doesn’t have to be tied to a specific sponsor, Godfrey said. It takes advantage of connected TV by including little streamed bits of targeted data on screen, like local weather, traffic on nearby streets, or betting odds for local sports teams. 

One analog of Slate actually comes from the movie business in more recent years. You may recall in the Before Times that many theaters would show an onscreen loop of trivia, entertainment news, factoids, static ads, promos and other material before starting the really important stuff, like trailers. 

But Slate – with those localized, targeted data feeds – can be far more individualized, helping recapture the attention of the more distracted home TV viewer. And recapturing attention is vital given all that vies for a home viewer’s focus. 

The idea of the Slate material is “Let's make it really engaging, really catchy, and force people to want to stay there until your programming returns,” Godfrey said. “We learned how to create what could be three seconds or one second or two minutes, or whatever it was, was never repetitive, never boring, and could be customized to that specific channel. It does all the stuff of a promo, or tomorrow tune in, or an old-fashioned ad filler. But the kicker is we've also designed it to be seamlessly sponsor-able by brands, who are looking for new ways to get on TV that aren’t just in an app.”

Origin’s attention to an overlooked corner of an existing ecosystem feels a lot like another New York-based company founded by media veterans. I’m thinking of Giphy, which during the 2010s built a billion-dollar business by indexing all those goofy, low-bandwidth animated GIFs that are now an essential part of text messaging and social media. The company’s founders realized search giant Google hadn’t bothered to track that burgeoning space, so Giphy seized what turned out to be a huge opportunity.

That doesn’t mean Origin will cash in at a similar level, or that it will be the only one to do so.

But it’s clear audiences want more than dead air during their entertainment experiences, especially in an era of endless choice. Someone’s going to reclaim that time, that audience and that money. It only took most of a century to figure it out. ■

David Bloom

David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline, Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.