It’s not ads that are bad, it’s the streaming ad experience

Comcast’s FreeWheel ad tech unit revealed fresh findings from its Viewer Experience Lab that give content owners and marketers some good news –  ads on streaming don’t necessarily hurt consumers’ viewing experience. Still, the results aren’t all positive. Because while ads themselves don’t seem to negatively impact viewers’ enjoyment of content, a poor ad break experience does.

FreeWheel last June launched the Viewer Experience Lab initiative to explore and identify factors, as well as expand its own product portfolio, contributing to the TV and ad viewer experience. The lab’s latest study, conducted with MediaScience, zeroed in on three ad break elements negatively impacting the streaming experience, including latency, unnatural ad breaks and slate (the latter which tends to mean unfilled ad time resulting in the equivalent of a blank screen or “we’ll be right back” message).

Although advertising on TV is nothing new, consumers’ shift to streaming and relatively more recent introduction of ad-supported offerings means the streaming ad experience remains a work in progress and can vary widely across the sea of available services, apps and platforms.

The report, “Improving the Quality of Ad Experiences,” involved 420 participants in an in-lab viewing session where they saw 30-minute programming on a blinded streaming service. Participants were served various ad experiences, including programming with no ads, as well as ad experiences that had latency, slate and unnatural ad breaks, compared to a control cell that served limited ad breaks in a seamless viewing experience.Participants provided real-time responses to questions about their experience along with physiological responses to ads and content, such as measuring consumers’ joy response via facial coding.

The good news: Ads themselves didn’t appear to hurt viewers’ enjoyment of programs, which ranked 6.3 out of 7 both with ads and without. Ad breaks can also give viewers a breather and attention reset, with FreeWheel finding they were 59% less likely to express negative emotions and 3% more likely to pay cognitive attention when seamless commercial breaks were present.

The bad news: On the flip side, when there’s a bad ad experience with poor quality or breaks that awkwardly disrupt content, brand perception and brand recall are negatively impacted alongside the viewing experience.

Three ad factors hurting the viewing experience

Of the three elements, latency, or slow or buffering ads, was bothersome to the most viewers, with 78% saying it bothers them moderately or a lot. Compared to an ads experience with buffering, a no latency ad experience delivered higher marks for consumer sentiment of program quality (up 8%), ad quality (7% higher) and brand quality (6% higher).

FreeWheel Viewer Experience lab ad break latency graph
© 2024 FreeWheel, A Comcast Company. All rights reserved. (FreeWheel)


FreeWheel noted latency should be particularly top of mind for live streaming events, where there’s more complexity in the ad decisioning process which can delay ad load time.

Some of the latest streamers teeing up live events include Netflix’s deal to exclusively stream two NFL Christmas Day games in 2024 as part of a three-season deal and Roku’s recently inked agreement for MLB Sunday Leadoff games on The Roku Channel.

In advice for advertisers, the FreeWheel report recommended using ad servers located close to end users, buying directly to reduce the number of hops needed in the media supply chain and ensuring partners have unified ad decisioning capabilities across all demand.

A second factor contributing to a lower-quality experience is ad breaks that don’t feel natural, like a commercial that interrupts the middle of the scene. These disruptive or unnatural ad breaks felt 16% more intrusive to viewers, who were also 14% less likely to recall ads served during a disruptive ad break.

As FreeWheel pointed out, the problem of intrusive ad breaks has become more common as streaming services introduce ad tiers, where breaks are inserted into programming originally designed to be ad-free and therefore don’t have natural pauses or placements for commercials built-in.

Finally, slates within programming can hamper viewers positive reaction both for content and for surrounding ads. The report explained “slate” is the result of an ad timeout that happens when an ad call is made and an exchange doesn’t respond in time or gives an empty reply. What ends up on viewers’ screens equates to a blank screen or screen saver. Unfilled or blank ad time is a significant issue on free ad-supported streaming TV (FAST) services, where earlier FreeWheel research found that up to a quarter of ad avails are not filled on FAST channels, meaning both underutilized ad inventory for publishers and viewing lulls for consumers.

Compared to the two other ad experience factors, viewers were less bothered by slates (33%). However, in measuring consumers’ physiological joy response, the study found viewers were 31% more likely to experience joy during a program with no slate.  And when slate is present it hurts brand perception of ads around it, with viewers rating ads adjacent to slate as 3% lower quality than ads during breaks with no slate.

FreeWheel Viewer Experience lab slate graph.
© 2024 FreeWheel, A Comcast Company. All rights reserved. (FreeWheel)


“The good news for advertisers is that contrary to what some may think, research found that ads themselves don’t actually impact program enjoyment for consumers. However, what does bother them is bad ad experiences such as ad latency, unnatural ad breaks, and slate, negatively impacting brand perception and recall,” said Mark McKee, GM at FreeWheel, in a statement.  “It is our responsibility as an industry to work towards building better viewer experiences, which in turn will help brands connect with audiences in premium environments. We need to get this right not just for the advertisers, but for all of us as viewers.”

The study also lends itself to tools that FreeWheel has developed to help address some of the issues, namely around enhancing the creative approval process, better management of ad frequency and reducing the appearance of blank ads. The company said it intends to detail the product “in the very near future.”

For details from the FreeWheel lab’s earlier research on what makes an optimal ad pod, read here.