Carrying On: America’s aggressive TV ads

January 26, 2012

Normally, I can’t sit through an entire NFL game unless my team is playing. Despite there being just 60 minutes of actual gameplay, contests are often drawn out beyond the three hour mark, as the sport’s stop-and-go nature allows frequent commercial breaks. At times, watching a game becomes altogether tedious, as networks try to squeeze in every possible second of advertising, regardless of how much time has passed since they last cut to break.

A sequence during Sunday’s NFC Championship game between the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants took this tedium to a new level. With the score tied in the final minutes and a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, Comcast viewers in the D.C. area had their broadcast interrupted by a string of commercials for Comcast’s Internet and cable service bundle Xfinity while play was still live.

As my roommate, a Bay-area native and die-hard 49ers fan, writhed in agony wondering what was happening to his team, I tried to rationalize how Comcast could interrupt such a critical stretch of their programming to air even more advertisements. I came up clueless.

The company insists that the commercials aired accidentally due to a technical error at the Fox-owned TV station WTTG. I guess it’s just a coincidence that Xfinity happens to be owned by Comcast, and that the ads aired at the most gripping point of the broadcast, when millions of viewers would no doubt refrain from switching the channel to avoid missing any action.
The incident reminded me of a classic episode of the Simpsons; in which the family sits in the living room watching television. Bart begins to comment as the show finishes, but Homer interrupts him: “Quiet, the commercials are on! If we don’t watch these it’s like we are stealing TV!”

Besides the obvious irony of Homer’s statement, it touches on the astonishing success of the American television industry to infuse advertising into the culture of TV. In the United States, we have come to accept frequent and extended commercial breaks as a simple reality of television. After all, ads account for a considerable portion of network revenues, and our favorite shows would likely suffer without those extra profits to invest in their production.

Yet this reasoning hardly tells the full story. Over the past few decades, commercials have increasingly cut into show times. In the 1960s, a typical hour-long program usually aired for 51 minutes without interruption, followed by ads until the commencement of the next episode. An equivalent show today offers about 42 minutes of actual programming, with commercial breaks sprinkled in between. As a result, 30 percent of all television air-time is devoted to advertisements, doubling the standard of the ‘60s.
Contrary to what networks may lead us to believe, we don’t have to accept this trend to sustain the financial viability of television. Compared to the television regulations in other developed countries, American networks advertise far more than their international counterparts. France permits just nine minutes of commercials for every hour of broadcasting, while Germany enforces a minimum of 20 minutes of programming between commercial breaks. The BBC, meanwhile, does not air any ads besides previews of its future programming.

In addition to subjecting viewers to far more commercials, the overall quality of American programs is diminished by the incessant commercial breaks, which force writers to include awkward and often tangential cliffhangers into the script just to keep viewers anticipating the return from the commercial break. Without these imposed moments of suspense, it would be easy to lose track of the narrative as it takes a five-minute intermission.

American sports offer perhaps the most defined example of this corruption of television programming. Unlike the NFL, the NBA and NCAA have official television timeouts included in the rules at different stages of the game, which guarantee sufficient ad time and distribute commercials somewhat evenly over the course of the game. Meanwhile, soccer is broadcasted without commercial interruption overseas, with the exception of a 15- to 20-minute break for halftime, which includes analysis and highlights. A major reason the sport has been slow to gain more air-time in the U.S. is because it does not yield ad revenues equivalent with more traditional American sports. Conversely, the Super Bowl, perhaps America’s defining sporting event, is as popular in some circles for its high-priced commercials as much as the game itself.

Comcast’s gaffe on Sunday may have been an accident, but it nevertheless underlines a disturbing reality in American television. While poor Homer thinks we should not steal TV, it’s pretty clear that the cable companies and TV networks are the real thieves. They have stolen our precious time and, more importantly, fundamentally tainted the experience of watching television.

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