The New England Patriots kick off their season Sept. 8 at 1 p.m. with a game against the Buffalo Bills that will air on CBS. At the same time, up the dial on NESN, the Boston Red Sox will play the New York Yankees.
It is a sports fan’s dilemma that would typically mean wearing out the “last” button on the remote control — and often changing channels, only to find that the other game is still in a commercial break.
Lincoln entrepreneur Rich Theriault is taking the guesswork out of channel-flipping with a device called MyChoice Gateway, which automatically leaves a game when it goes to ads and returns when the action resumes. A viewer can plug the small piece of hardware into a wall socket, and set a primary and secondary channel with the corresponding MyChoice mobile application.
The service has been available locally for a few weeks and will expand to national telecasts of major sporting events next month, just in time for football season.
“I had this idea,” Theriault said: “Wouldn’t it be cool to eliminate commercials? Because they’re everywhere and nobody likes them, and there’s a fundamental flaw, in that they’re always trying to be in your face. I wanted to try to get some control back.”
MyChoice is the latest company trying to satisfy TV viewers’ desire for control, which has driven the popularity of digital video recorders and on-demand services — from TiVo to Hulu to Netflix — that often permit ad skipping. Last year, Dish Network released a DVR called the Hopper, which automatically removes commercials from recorded shows. The company was promptly sued by Fox and NBC, which sought to block sales of the Hopper while the case is decided, but a federal appeals court ruled last week that the recorder can stay on the market.
Theriault said he hopes to avoid such legal troubles because “we’re not recording or modifying content. We’re just changing the channel.”
And Apple is reported to be working on an arrangement with broadcasters that would allow Apple TV users to skip commercials as programs air, with the company possibly reimbursing broadcasters for lost ad revenue.
A study published in April by entertainment industry tracker Rentrak showed 60 percent annual growth in on-demand viewership of network television shows, with more than 43 million Americans using on-demand services each month. Broadcasters, including Fox, ABC, and NBC, are fighting back with plans to insert commercials into on-demand programming, with no option to skip.
Sports, however, remain a sort of last frontier for ad skipping. It is possible to DVR a game and watch it later while fast-forwarding through commercials, but sporting events are more compelling live.
“Consumers now are in control much more than they ever have been,” said Brian Shin, founder of the Boston start-up Visible Measures, another company addressing viewers’ aversion to ads. “Traditional broadcast has always been about big companies dictating when people can see stuff, but you see with DVRs and with on-demand programming that consumers want to be able to choose what they watch, when, and on what device.”
Shin sees people’s attitudes toward commercials a bit differently than Theriault does. He said research by Visible Measures indicates that people don’t hate commercials so much as they hate being forced to watch them.
The real turnoff is having no say in the matter, he said.
So Visible Measures instead tries to find out which commercials viewers would be willing to watch — online. Say you’re watching a YouTube clip about makeup tips. Visible Measures will plant makeup ads among the list of related videos that appears beside the one you are watching. If you’re interested in products that can help you apply the tips you just learned, you might actually watch an ad voluntarily.
“And only if you actually choose to watch one of those videos would we get paid and charge the advertiser,” Shin said. “So it’s a cost per view model.”
Meanwhile, the MyChoice channel-flipping device costs $65 upfront, and the service is $4.95 per month after that. Theriault said the cost is a small price to pay, not just for personal convenience, but for parents to have the ability to protect children from the racy, alcohol-soaked ads that often air during sporting events. Parents might set the secondary channel to PBS or Nickelodeon, he suggested.
“People have different reasons why they don’t like ads, but most of them don’t like them,” Theriault said. “It’s either you’re wasting my time, or you’re manipulating me, or my kids and I don’t like it, or you’re offending me.”
In two rounds of private fund-raising, MyChoice has collected almost $1 million in investments. Theriault said he hopes to have between 3,000 and 5,000 subscribers by the end of the year.
Whether viewers want to toggle between the Pats and the Sox or shield their kids’ eyes from a GoDaddy commercial, “consumers now will be able to drive the bus,” he said.