Americans don’t watch TV shows anymore. We watch TV commercials and promos with 5- to 8-minute segments of the actual show thrown in every now and then for entertainment value.

If you happen to miss any of the commercials, don’t worry; the networks have reserved the lower third of the screen for advertisers and the networks themselves to hawk products and coming attractions in “embedded crawls” while the actual TV show is in progress. There’s nothing quite so enjoyable and conducive to the television viewing experience as some damned thing wiggling and waving at you beneath the TV show you’re trying to watch.

If TV Guide were honest, its listing for “CSI: NY” would read:
Thursday, 8:00-9:00 PM on ABC:
Geico
Ford
Cheerios
Target
Addiction Centers of America
And bits of “CSI: NY” squeezed into the top two-thirds of your screen every seven minutes.

By the time you get back to the program—after 5, 6, 7 commercials crammed into one single break—you’ve forgotten the plot line and the characters’ names. But it doesn’t matter anymore because you are now deaf from the hair-blowing volume of the ads. As you try to read the actors’ lips in a futile attempt to rejoin the story, your mind begins to wander back to the days when the viewer was considered a valued customer–not just a mark.

The Good Old Days

Commercial TV hasn’t always been this way. From the 1950s to the early ’70s, viewers, advertisers and the networks lived together in harmony. The implied message from the viewer: If you program good shows, we will watch them and we will tolerate a reasonable number of commercial breaks so you can earn enough money to program the shows and make a profit.

In a way, the arrangement represented a kind of mutual respect among all parties.

Back then, a typical hour-long TV show consisted of 52 minutes of actual show with eight minutes reserved for ads and promos. Generally, they would run two minutes of ads every 15 minutes or so. Quaintly, the show had the entire screen to itself.

Occasionally, the networks would cheat a little by cramming one or two extra ads into the hour. But that was OK because viewers frequently violated the unwritten agreement by leaving the TV to go to the bathroom (my dad) or by going to the kitchen to make something to eat during one or two of the commercials.

For the most part, however, it was a win-win-win situation.  We got to see our shows, companies got to sell us stuff, and for a few dollars and an almost-solemn promise to “serve the public interest,” broadcasters got to use the people’s airwaves and make piles of cash.

Fast-Forward

Today, with the average hour-long show containing 16-21 minutes of ads, the odds are 1-in-3 that you’ll be watching something other than “CSI: NY” when you’re watching “CSI: NY.”

Hell, you could build a bathroom during one of today’s commercial breaks.

This is television: the major interface between corporations and the public, where you’d think media conglomerates and advertisers would at least try to show their best, least mercenary face. But no, by the time you’ve watched a couple TV shows (including the end credits which have been squashed over to one side, or run at mach 3 to make room for even more commercials), you feel like you’ve been walking down a carnival midway with the loudest, most obnoxious carnies in the world hollering at you about low insurance rates, full-bodied beer and erectile dysfunction.

*

Update: It seems our legislature is actually trying to do something about the loudness factor with its Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (CALM). According to the Washington Post, the Senate recently voted “to require television stations and cable companies to keep commercials at the same volume as the programs they interrupt.” Democratic Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Charles Schumer co-sponsored the Senate bill. Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo was the champion of our ears and sanity in the House.

Of course, there are still “a few problems” to be worked out before this becomes law. TV bigwigs have been saying for years that keeping commercials at a decent level is a difficult technical problem.

Bullshit.

If broadcasters are able to turn up the volume of commercials, they can certainly turn it down, I betcha. Anyone who has spent two minutes around audio gear knows that a little, inexpensive  device called a “limiter” or a somewhat more aggressive version called a “compressor” can keep any audio signal within a set volume range. I have both of these gizmos in my ancient-but-operational home studio, for Pete’s sake. There are also a number of fancier loudness mitigators on the market.  Britain has been using them to regulate the loudness of TV commercials in the UK for a while now; so can we.

Now that it looks like we’re about to take care of the volume problem, let’s take care of the volume problem. While Congress is in a frisky mood, it should escalate this people’s uprising by demanding a sensible limit on the number of TV ads. Something along the lines of the European Union’s 12 minutes per-hour limit would be a good starting point.

Hey, Americans might even start watching television again.

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Comments
  1. mcoville says:

    I have switched to watching all tv on DVR to cut out commercial and I limit myself to about 8 hours of TV a week.

    I was so sick of watching commercials that I now with my self-imposed limts I have tim to read about 2 – 3 books a month, thanks to corporate greed I have turned off the TV and started to learn more about the world through reading.

    Like

    • Russ Buchanan says:

      Hey mcoville –

      The upside of corporate greed.
      Maybe this reading thing will catch on, and before you know it we’ll have a bunch of well-read, savvy Americans AND a thriving and diverse publishing industry once again. Be still, my heart.

      Thanks for the comment,

      Russ

      Like

    • Sue G says:

      Do you have to pay more for the DVR? If you are paying for the DVR and not allowing advertising then you are being ripped off. I wouldn’t fork out more to avoid advertising. Maybe that is what corporations want. They want people to pay for DVR’s to avoid advertising and they make more money that way. Greedy corporate America. Corporate psychological mind games upon consumers is what I call it. They want you to think you are getting a good deal by paying for DVR to avoid commercials and they are getting more money in their hands for paying for DVR service. I only hope you are not paying extra to have DVR as they gotcha.

      Like

  2. Rosemary says:

    Hey handsome!

    Just checking in…

    Again, right one! Thank goodness for the DVR!! I cannot get over the number of commercials and the short length of actual time watching the show, in between the commercials!

    I spend more time listening to NPR and reading… and use the DVR for my favorite shows.

    And there is nothing more annoying than the BLARING sound of commercials with increased volume x3! I cannot imagine that wins any customers to their products. It makes me angry.

    Like

  3. MeanerMina says:

    Ya know, it’s our FCC, and our governments auction and protection of certain band widths for certain uses that makes the media conglomerates monopolies possible. The air waves really do belong to the people, we just rent them out to Murdoch and the like.

    Like

    • Russ Buchanan says:

      Hello MeanerMina –

      Ah, the poor, gelded FCC.
      Yes, spectrum has always technically belonged to you and me, but when TV started turning a profit, the FCC continued to grant licenses and renewals for a pittance and a pledge to operate “in the public interest.” I’m not sure, but I think the phrase, “license to print money” was coined to describe the sweetness of those licenses for broadcasters. Then things got worse. The Communications Act of 1996 not only made us landlords prohibited from collecting rent, but went a long way toward creating the monopolies you speak of.

      Strangely enough, the only politician with the balls to openly defy the NAB (before Clinton signed the Act into law) was John McCain. He had the gall to demand that all companies wanting to do business on our airwaves (including stations later “grandfathered” by the Act) bid on all portions of spectrum, which would have produced zillions for the country’s coffers.

      What happened to THAT John McCain?

      Like

  4. Rosemary says:

    Okay here is a new topic for your posts under this title: “the US Chamber of Commerce– Who do they represent in the United States?”

    http://thinkprogress.org/2010/10/14/u-s-chamber-of-commerce-funded-by-top-offshoring-companies/
    and
    http://thinkprogress.org/2010/10/19/chamber-chinese-seminar/

    And let us not forget that they are the ones fighting the case against punishing employers of illegal aliens in Arizona, because their corporate sponsors, do not want to be held accountable for hiring illegal Mexicans, paying them slave wages, with no benefits, no insurance and letting every one else foot the bills, while they make huge profits, including making the labor marketplace uncompetitive, victimizing not only illegals but Americans too. It is in their interests to keep things as they are… Reforming immigration will not be in the best interest of unmitigated greed.

    I think they should be named the ” The Chamber of Greedy, Unscrupulous, Unethical, Un-American Business Organizations.” Because that is what they really represent.

    Like

  5. SG says:

    Some also need to know that cable operators are making billions per year with their hands in TV advertising. They also make the decision on having mega advertising. Comcast was said to have bought MSNBC because of the billions they have made off television advertising. The consumer’s who pay monthly cable TV fee’s are lowest on the totem pole for having their say in TV advertising. The cable operators only want money from the advertising and the consumer’s are nothing anymore. Money, the root of all evil. Big business does not care about the consumer and only themselves. Corporate greed!

    Like

  6. Sue G says:

    I think folks should go back to reading books. Look how many illterate people there are due to televsion and corporate America. Corporate America is laughing all the way to the bank as they think we citizens are unintelligent. What scares me is today’s young people do not think about today’s issues and do not realize they are giving into the big corporations and don’t know it. I loathe cell phones, cable TV, computers as they really are not for us as it’s for big corporate America to rob us of money. Young people do not realize this and think all these electronic gadgets are ‘Cool’. Cable operators who have their hands in the money pit also causing massive advertising. I heard Comcast is making billions off advertising annually to buy out MSNBC. They could care less about the public/consumers. We are the lowest on the totem pole. It’s advertisers giving them the money and they are loving it. TV used to be entertainment and today we are being entertained with advertising. It’s sad that everything is electronic now days and people do not stop and take the time to look at the important things in life such as family, education, etc. It’s time the public got back to the basics of life and stop giving their hard earned money to corporate America. The FCC has their hands in some of it also from my research. There is such a thing called ‘Kickbacks’. I live in an apartment complex that requires you to have and pay for cable TV. Come to find out the FCC wants it that way. They love it that cable operators are making cable TV mandatory in apartments and consumers HOA fees. Yes, they love those kickbacks.

    Like

    • Russ Buchanan says:

      Hi Sue G –

      Thank you for commenting, Sue.

      Yes, I’m afraid reading in America has gone the way of covered wagons and polite political discourse. Today, 50,000 copies is all it takes for a book to make the N.Y. Times best-seller list — in a nation of 300 million! Of course, TV is one of the major reasons for the burgeoning illiteracy of America. However, another equally important — and depressing — cause for this sad state of affairs is a society that pretends to value public education, but refuses to pay for it. People won’t buy books if they don’t know how to read them — call it a quirk of human nature.

      Regarding the apathy of young people: You’re right, many young folk are as oblivious to the world around them as we, uh, less young Americans. Even worse, these poor kids are unaware that they have been chumped their whole lives by big business and its advertising handmaidens. However, there is reason to hope. Millenials — the generation born after 1982 — are consistently showing progressive attitudes about such issues as homosexuality, race, the environment, role of government, immigration and religion. Check out my post, “The Millennials: Something to Thank About on Thanksgiving” here at Craving Sense — it will make you happy.

      I agree, advertising has lost control of itself. And it’s not just TV and radio. According to the N.Y. Times, city-dwelling Americans see upwards of 5,000 advertising messages per day. Sometimes, in the most unexpected places. Last night I went to the L.A. County Fair to see Earth, Wind and Fire. There we sat in the $30 seats (where the troposphere gives way to the stratosphere), sweating profusely from the rising body heat of the 4,000 bodies siting below us. Finally, the musicians filed out of the tour bus and took the stage. The lights went down, the excitement built… and they ran a Toyota commercial. For a terrifying second, I wondered if each song would have its own corporate sponsor.

      Although advertising on everything from bus benches to the Internet is excessive, TV is still the reigning champ of out-of-control advertising. The sad irony is that all of this TV advertising has proven to be counterproductive for the networks and stations. In the networks’ mad dash to air as many ads as is humanly possible, viewers have become fed up with the interruptions and are leaving in droves. Of course, less viewers equals less money TV execs can charge for commercial time. So what do those executives do? They sell even more commercial time, thereby driving even more viewers away. Ta da. This is the hard reality at TV stations and networks today. The only folks benefiting from the madness are the ad agencies. But not for long. The Golden Goose is on life support.

      Thanks again for writing,

      RB

      Like

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