From the early days of television to the age of Hulu, viewers have always complained about all the annoying commercials that interrupted their favorite shows.
Now a Lexington start-up is turning that strained relationship between viewers and commercials on its head. HitBliss and its video streaming service actually pay people with “virtual cash” to watch targeted advertisements. Viewers can use the credit they earn to buy TV shows and rent popular movies from the company.
“This is radically different than anything people have ever seen before,” said Sharon Peyer, cofounder and vice president of the company, which launched a test version of its product this month. “In exchange for watching advertisements, the consumer essentially gets compensated for their time and attention.”
The HitBliss app — only available for download on desktop computers and laptops for now — allows viewers to choose from a lineup of ads to watch and earn credit. Users can then go to the HitBliss Store to buy content with the credit they’ve earned or pay for it with a credit card.
About four to six minutes of commercial viewing can be redeemed for one new movie rental, which costs $3.99 in the HitBliss Store — the same price iTunes and Amazon charge. Old movies are priced at $2.99, and TV episodes cost $1.99 at HitBliss.
HitBliss’s content also parallels that offered by iTunes and Amazon, featuring titles from Warner Bros., The CW, Universal, Paramount, Starz Media, and the Weinstein Co.
Users have access to that content relatively soon after it appears in theaters or on television. They can rent movies like “Argo’’ or “Flight” just four months after the films have left theaters, and buy TV episodes from shows like “The Big Bang Theory” or “The Walking Dead” just a day after they have aired.
Peyer said that in the past, consumers would not have been able to legally access such fresh content for free. She said she hopes HitBliss will serve as an alternative for tech-savvy, college-age consumers who might otherwise download programming illegally.
One catch: HitBliss advertising is largely targeted to very specific audiences. Users are asked to share lots of personal information, including details like age, gender, location, income, Web and search history, activity on retail sites, and viewing history on HitBliss. Viewers who provide more information earn credit at faster rates.
But the company said it doesn’t share any of those details with advertisers. “That information all resides within the HitBliss app, which is the only place it’s stored,” said Peyer. “Not even we see it. If you [remove the service], that info is gone, out of the system, no one can get it,” she said.
The idea of offering companies an audience of viewers who are “ready, open, and there for the purpose of consuming advertising is really interesting and new,” said Neela Sakaria, executive vice president of Beverly-based Latitude Research, a media research and strategy consulting firm.
“I don’t know how broad the appeal [to viewers] will be, so it could be limiting for advertisers,” Sakaria said. “In any case, it wouldn’t be a complete solution for advertisers.”
On HitBliss, advertisers can see whether a viewer is a “match” with their target audience. One example offered by Peyer: Betty Crocker, the General Mills Inc. brand, could target a very specific audience by asking to reach females from the Midwest who have searched the Internet for information about “Tollhouse chocolate chips.” The service would send the ad to all HitBliss users who fit that description.
Advertisers can also see how a user behaves while viewing their ad. They can tell if the viewer watched the entire ad, moved to a new computer window, or clicked through to a related coupon.
Peyer said those details allow advertisers to gather valuable information and consumers to watch ads they find relevant.
“On TV, advertisers buy space within a show, spending all that money to reach every single member of the audience, when maybe only 10 percent are actually in their market,” she said.
HitBliss users actually have to watch the ads to earn credit. The service makes sure viewers hold up their end of the bargain by tracking screen activity. HitBliss stops the ad — and the payment — if a user moves to another screen or turns down the volume.
It even has built-in checkpoints so viewers don’t just walk away. The image of a face pops up periodically on screens to ask a user, “Are you still there?” Payments for the session are lost if the viewer doesn’t respond within a few seconds. Over time, consumers can build up “trust points” for frequent use, which reduces the the number of prompts.
“There is no free pass,” explained Peyer. “They’ve got to actually pay attention and watch the ad. But once they’ve earned that cash, they have the ability to spend it in our store in any way they wish.”