I call it "Commercial Creep," the relentless, intrusive proliferation of commercials into every media second of our multi-media lives. My tolerance is long gone. The issue now is controlling my intolerance, which is bordering on complete irrationality.
I am saved from some irritation with television because I time-shift (DVR) almost everything I watch—except for breaking news and Downton Abbey, which I insist on watching in real-time. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know.
When I was writing movies of the week for television, I heard producers tell idealistic staff writers who were trying to protect their words and ideas, "Don't get too full of yourselves. Remember that your real job here is to write stuff that fills the time between commercials."
Too cynical. But as the years have gone by, actual programming—which we writers used to call, “Our time, our words, goddammit!”—is shrinking. And quite dramatically. Not just on television either.
Look at the Internet. A decade ago, idealists in their “fight against the machine” had a mantra: "The Net wants to be free." That battle is over. Free rides are going the way of Saturday mail delivery.
Nearly every video clip, especially on HuffPo, now has a 20-30-second commercial preceding it, even if the clip is only 30 seconds long—I read the text under the clip screen instead. Screw ‘em!
Distracting pop-ups and animated advertising are everywhere. Microsoft Office is cluttered with annoying ads; bobbling heads sell auto insurance; worse, on many forum sites, you have to pay not to get animated ads littering your visual fields. Wall Street calls inserting advertising "monetizing." I call it molestation by Mad Men.
Moreover, regulatory and common-sense firewalls against the "pitchman's" blandishments have been displaced by juicy promises of smartphones and net apps laced with "customized" ad programs that track your latest search terms. Lucky you. And you don’t believe Big Brother is following you?
Invade my privacy, please.
As futurist and author Aldous Huxley prophesied, we are becoming a people enslaved, not by what we fear, but by what we love—this cornucopia of media conveniences digital gadgets and appliances. I am what I buy.
The vaunted supremacy of mobile media notwithstanding, the TV is still the gadget of choice in our home media centers. The U.S. has by far the highest number of TV ad minutes per hour in the industrialized world, two-to-three times the minutes allowed in European countries, our cultural cousins.
Today, American viewers will endure approximately three hours of advertisements in a 10-hour viewing period, twice what they would have seen in the 1960s. The commercial metastasis wasn’t always this aggressive. What happened?
According to journalist Rick Heldenfels, during the deregulation frenzy of the business-biased Reagan era, the FCC abandoned all commercial limits in primetime. Except for children’s television, this left the amount of commercial time per hour up to the discretion of the networks. The word “discretion” is code for an industry policing itself (har, har, har). Lobbyism works
At first, the only commercial firewall available to a viewer was the remote control, introduced by Zenith Radio Corp. in 1956. Commercials could be muted and channels changed without getting up and schlepping over to the TV itself.
Then came the Sony home videocassette recorder (VCR) in 1971, which allowed viewers to fast-forward through commercials on recorded programs. It was followed several decades later by TiVo and then DVR, which afforded time-shifted viewing and remote FF function.
Despite all these heroic weapons against ad pollution, live-programming is a gauntlet. The three-hour morning shows where the ads, teasers, and bumpers consume as much as 35 minutes an hour give me acid reflux.
For shorter time slots, like Comedy Central’s 30-minute The Daily Show, the numbers hover around 22 minutes of program, meaning 23 percent of the show is not the show. One-hour shows, both cable and broadcast, now typically have 43 minutes of the actual program compared with 48 minutes in the late '80s—a 9 percent commercial creep.
By comparison, one-hour shows on premium cable channels HBO and Showtime are in the 50-55 minute range: Only 10 percent of the show is not the show. You either pay a subscription fee, so you don’t get what you pay not to get—commercials—or you pay by watching a colon’s worth of commercials. This morning on the Today Show, I counted 21 commercials within a 7-minute time span, broken up by a 3-minute piece of news content,
I am not totally unrealistic, of course. I know that advertising pays for Suits, Castle, Elementary, The Good Wife, and Persons of Interest, some of my favorites. But networks and their local affiliates are huge profit machines. Huge.
Since profit is revenue minus cost, obviously fewer commercials are both possible and affordable. The trouble is, of course, that greed is an appetite never sated. Programmers will insert as many commercials as the traffic will bear. Most of us dutifully, quietly bear it.
But they are not so confident that they don’t feel the need to deceive us:
Commercial Creep Strategies
1. Bunching commercials in the last segment while you’re waiting for the climax or epilogue. One of the most brazen forms of holding the viewer hostage occurs, once again, on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.
At the end of his nightly guest interview, Stewart says, “We’ll be right back.” Then he leans over and says some unheard words to the guest, who has to lean in to catch Stewart’s words—whatever those secret, cool words are—as the visual moves to a 30 or 60-second commercial intrusion. Stewart returns and smiles, “That’s our show,” and signs off. Roll Credits. You hung in for what?
2. To lard on even more commercial spots (after a four-minute commercial break) and at the same time avoid audience rebellion, show hosts like Rachel Maddow appear for 20 seconds and quickly re-repeat what’s coming up (it’s called a teaser). Then another round of commercials unspools. You’ve just watched five almost solid minutes of commercials, but the 20-second teaser made it feel like it was just a really quick commercial break. Nifty, eh?
3. The Mach 2 Trick, creating more commercial time by having the actors speed-talk. This trickery seemed to originate with creator/writer Aaron Sorkin on his popular political series, The West Wing. NBC wanted more commercials. Sorkin had two choices: write less or have the actors talk faster.
Since Sorkin’s characters always have a lot to say, he chose the latter. The networks added several advertising minutes, and no one’s the wiser… well, except for those whose word-processing aptitude is shot because of age or infirmity: “What’s he saying, Martha? I can’t understand what they’re saying anymore. I’m buying a German hearing aid next time.”
4. Castrating content: Generally, movies have more ads than reruns of TV series. Why? In movies like The Matrix, whole sections of a storyline can be snipped without noticeable narrative damage. It is harder to make time for commercial breaks in short, plot-heavy reruns of The Good Wife because it is so easy to do noticeable damage to program coherence and continuity.
Then again, what do I know about what TV audiences want and don’t want? Maybe they really pine for more commercials.
I close with this hot-off-the-press nugget of depressing information about what audiences want.
Everyone, including moi, mocked CNN for devoting so much time and money to its endless, potty-to-potty coverage of passengers on the Triumph, Carnival’s “cruise ship from hell.” In so doing, CNN actually doubled its audience and ratings—and advertising income. Ouch!
Warning: Now that they have figured out what you want, your future is cheap, tawdry voyeurism surrounded by the dancing phlegm of Mucinex commercials.