Hype Sheet: DirecTV Couldn't Afford Newt

The Pitch DirecTV's ingenious ad agency, Deutsch Inc., mods yet another cinematic classic, this time selecting a flick that's sure to delight the Gizmodo crowd: James Cameron's superb Aliens. Yes, that's the real Sigourney Weaver, made up to look 21 years younger and slotted into a similar-looking robot-arm apparatus. This time, though, no dirty mouth—the script elides her use of the B-word, instead cutting to a deliberately cheesy paean to a DirecTV deal (new subscribers may qualify to get the first four months free). The moment's all the funnier, of course, because Weaver—er, Ripley—is battling Mama Alien while praising a DBS service. Funny stuff, and the most geek-friendly of DirecTV's long-running "Fourth Wall" ad campaign since last year's Star Trek spot. But can these inventive ads fend off the specter of Verizon's FiOS and other triple-play providers?

Rip-Off Of Obviously, the whole point of this ad is that it's ripping off Cameron. I wonder what James thinks of his sci-fi masterpiece being modded in such a manner—and I wonder how much they had to pay Sigourney Weaver to reprise her Ripley role. I guess she needed some scratch after Happily N'Ever After flopped.

The Spin Contrary to some earlier ads in this campaign, which stressed DirecTV's picture quality and other specs, the accent here is on value. Aside from the pitch for the four-month intro offer, Weaver chats up DirecTV's vast array of channels—a menu that's only going to get bigger in the coming months, as the service adds several dozen high-def channels. In the 30-second version of the ad, Weaver also adds a gratuitous dig at cable, comparing the thrill of killing an alien to the joy of ditching Time Warner, or Comcast, or whoever has the monopoly in her neighborhood. But let's face it, the real point here is the wow factor—DirecTV still needs to break down the resistance of technophobes, who recall the mammoth satellite dishes (and shady satellite salesmen) of yore. Setting tongues wagging over the ads' cinematic wizardry makes newbies feel more confident that they're dealing with pros—as well as pros who understand the raised-in-the-'80s demographic that's now the sweet-spot for premium TV providers.

Counterpsin Big discounts are often a sign of semi-desperate circumstances, and that certainly seems to be the case here. Anyone who follows tech stocks knows that DirecTV's been having a hard time this year (down about 14 percent), largely because investors are increasingly skeptical of its ability to compete with the likes of Verizon's FiOS and other fiber services that can offer broadband-TV-phone bundles. That's forced DirecTV to focus on price in order to compete; note that there's no 1080i shout-outs in the campaign's recent entrants, unlike in the early days of Jessica Simpson's spokesmodeling.

Takeaway Trite as it might sound, DirecTV's at a crossroads. It's in the midst of being sold, from Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. to Liberty Media. That's probably good news for gearheads: News Corp. made a bollocks of its in-house DVR system, and all signs point to a reconciliation between TiVO and DirecTV under the new regime. DirecTV also has to play some tech catch-up; for example, though it'll be using MPEG-4 transmission for its new high-def channels, the older TiVO HR 10-250 DVR apparently won't be compatible. On top of that, will DirecTV keep having to slash prices in order to compete with the likes of Verizon and Comcast? Because right now, FiOS in particular seems to be eating DirecTV's lunch.

Hype-O-Meter 7.5 (out of 10). Another great ad in the Fourth Wall campaign, and all due to respect to Deutsch Inc.; a "making-of" series on YouTube would be most excellent. But you can also tell that this ad approach is getting a wee bit tired—just ask investors. DirecTV needs to give more thought to how it's gonna confront the emerging competition from fiber, or it'll fall back to niche status one of these days. Let's hope its rekindled relationship with TiVO is a step in the right direction.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Hype Sheet column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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