January 18, 2013 By Wayne Hanson
Today, television shows seem more ad than show. A two-hour movie may occupy a three-hour time slot -- one hour of ads, two of movie. Of course networks need to make money, and so ads go with the territory. Some ads are very clever, even funny, a very few rising to the status of art. But most are obnoxious, maddening, repetitive and are swamping broadcast, cable and satellite TV programming.
Recently, ads have begun intruding directly on programs, running on the bottom of the screen. And if advertisers are scarce, the same ad is likely to play over and over again. At the start of a movie, ads are few, but as the film nears its climax, ads proliferate, until they are nearly continuous with only a few breaks for the most exciting part of the drama.
And in a ploy to defeat channel hopping at commercial breaks, many channels appear to synchronize their ads to start and stop about the same time so one can't flip from Men in Black to Rush Hour and back to avoid the commercials. Flipping between Spongebob and Lethal Weapon often works, but not many viewers are likely to do that for obvious reasons.
Ad content has left behind any pretext of good taste, hawking pills for erectile dysfunction, adult diapers, sexual lubricants and other pelvic products such as those advertised with no apparent shame by former NFL coach and sportscaster Jimmy Johnson. Who wants to hear about how well it works for him? Even worse, muting the ad brings up the subtitles. There's no escape.
According to one source, commercials for prime-time shows expanded from 13 percent of the available air time in 1952, to 31 percent in 2011. The European Union, in its usual micromanaging way, mandated a maximum 12 minutes of ads for each hour of television program -- about what the U.S. had in 1952. And some European programs, such as the comedies and dramas produced by the BBC, are paid for by British taxpayers whether they watch them or not. But the BBC produces some wonderful programs.
As I was just about to pull the plug on my flat screen, this Christmas my daughter and her boyfriend bought my wife and me a subscription to Netflix and a gadget called a Roku that hooks the TV to our wifi and thus to the Internet. Immediately we were watching some of the best programs around with no ads. Many of those great British shows are available in sequence season by season, including Dr. Who, Downton Abbey, Doc Martin, MI5, Top Gear and others. In addition, we watch favorite shows like Futurama, Nikita, and others, as well as of course, movies. Lots of movies. And no ads. Absolutely none.
For my news fix, I discovered iPhone apps for Public Radio, Fox News, Al Jazeera English, Deutsche Welle, the BBC, the local NBC News affiliate, and ESPN. I've got more news than I can use.
I did notice something very interesting when I switched from the Roku/Netflix offerings back to standard television: How crass much of the programming seems in comparison. Americans have lots of viewing choices and that's good, but as noted in the recent hearings on gun violence, kids see thousands of murders on TV shows, and while there is no demonstrated connection between violent shows and violent acts by viewers, it certainly doesn't contribute much to the improvement of our culture.
In December the CALM Act, which stands for "Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act" went into effect in the U.S., mandating that television ads must be the same general loudness as the programs they accompany. That's a good start, but if commercial television is going to compete with Internet media it is going to have to evolve beyond H. L. Mencken's observation: "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public."
Hopefully market forces will shape up commercial television and the FCC won't have to meddle with ad time limits as the EU has done. If the market is working well, changes could include fewer ads, and a better selection of individual cable channels rather than bundled offerings with channels in a language one doesn't speak, infomercial channels and so on. Let channels compete for viewers, and if Honey Boo Boo wins, well so be it -- maybe Mencken was right after all.
Wayne Hanson is editorial director of Digital Communities. His interest is in the future of communities and the elements necessary to create those places in which we would most want to live and work. What makes an ideal community, and how can civic leaders help their cities, counties and regions evolve to better meet old necessities and new opportunities?