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mac.column.ted: There's no escape: Advertising gone wild

mac.column.ted: There's no escape: Advertising gone wild

Ted Landau
January 2005

Years ago, while watching syndicated reruns of Star Trek, I was certain that some scenes were being cut from each episode. Sure enough, a few days later, an article in the newspaper confirmed this. The reason? Not censorship, but lack of time. More specifically, when the episodes first aired, the number of minutes devoted to commercials was several minutes less (per episode) than was presently the case. To make the reruns accommodate the increased commercial time, the station deleted a few scenes from each episode. This practice is now fairly common, and you will notice it in many rerun shows now in syndication.

The sad truth is that the minutes/hour devoted to commercials has continued to increase over the years. Up until 1992, stations adhered to a self-imposed limit of 9.5 minutes per hour in prime time. Even this limit represented more minutes per hour than had been common in previous decades. However, the restriction was dropped altogether when it was ruled in violation of anti-trust laws. Stations were then free to run as many commercials as they thought the public could tolerate. Apparently, they thought the public could tolerate quite a bit. The number of commercial minutes per hour has since almost doubled to the current level of about 19 minutes per hour in prime time! For daytime shows, it goes even higher (reaching 21 minutes/hour on some shows). There are times when the duration of a commercial break goes on for so long, that it starts to feel as if the show itself is the interruption, rather than the reverse. This has led me to just about give up on watching TV programs when they are broadcast. Instead, I tape the shows I want to watch and view them they next day -- so that I can fast-forward through the ads (more about ad-skipping in a moment).

If you watch sports on television (which is one case where tape delay doesn't work as well; I don't want to watch today's football game tomorrow), it can get even worse. In football, for example, commercials often occur with almost every stop in the action. It's especially annoying after a touchdown; the network goes to commercial after the touchdown, again after the extra point, and again after the ensuing kick-off return. For about 10 seconds of action, you get something like 6 minutes or more of commercials. Then there are the enforced "referee's time-outs" -- whose only purpose is to guarantee that you don't go too long without a commercial. But wait; there's more! The advertisement blitz continues with the "billboard" ads that surround basketball courts and hockey rinks, and remain annoyingly in view as you are watching the game. Then, of course, there are the various worthless (in my view) "statistics" that are posted on your screen throughout the game -- whose real function is to shill for some product rather than provide information (with names like the "Gillette close shave of the game"). On top of this pile, add the promo messages that appear on screen while the game is actually in progress (typically used to promote upcoming shows on the network). Even the names of the arena or stadium (e.g., SBC Park; Ford Field) and the event itself (e.g., the FedEx Orange Bowl) often include product names. Is there no limit? Has the word "overload" been removed from the dictionary?

Sadly, ad over-saturation is not limited to television. You are not safe even in your local supermarket. Ads are everywhere: on your shopping cart, on the floor, on the dividers used to separate orders at the checkout conveyers, on the extra coupons you get when you get your receipt, and on and on.

Enough already. A desert island starts sounding good as a permanent residence on some days.

Getting back to television: I am not alone in taking action to avoid commercials. But advertisers are fighting back. Because of the trend to use devices such as VCRs and TiVo machines to bypass ads, stations are increasingly using commercial overlays (as pioneered in sports TV) in regular prime time shows. The "advantage" of these ads is that you can't block them without missing the show itself!

Then there's the increasingly popular trend towards product-placement advertising. When the star of a TV show (or a movie) grabs a bottle of Coke, you can be sure that it's not a random choice of cola. Coca-Cola is paying for this exposure. Now, even these relatively unobtrusive placements are not sufficient. We are on the verge of "advertainment" (as covered in a recent Denver Post article). In these cases, the product actually becomes a key component of the program/movie. For TV, this was pioneered by game shows, such as the Price is Right -- where the entire game becomes an excuse to promote one product after another. But you can now expect to see this approach integrated into the plots of weekly series (such as Ford's Mustang as a key component of the plot on Fox's "The O.C"). It's already old news in movies (recall the vehicles showcased in Tomb Raider and James Bond movies). Actually, one of the most annoying examples of product placement I have even seen was for (of all things!) Apple's iPod. In Blade 3: Trinity, there is an entire subplot that revolves around a character's use of an iPod and ITMS. It serves no purpose whatsoever except as a commercial.

A mutant variation of the product placement concept are commercials masquerading as something else. This is currently in vogue on the Web. Prime examples are American Express' Seinfield-Superman episodes and the mini-movies shown at the Amazon Theater.

And I haven't even broached the subject of ads that arrive via junk email and junk faxes.

There's no escape. I am now convinced that even if I did move to a desert island, I'd be subjected to banners from planes flying overhead and flyers that arrive in bottles.

But it gets still worse. The powers-that-be want to take away one of the few tools available to counter this onslaught: the ability to fast-forward through TV commercials. You may recall that ReplayTV was once a strong competitor to TiVo. ReplayTV went bankrupt largely because Hollywood studios sued it for including an automatic ad-skipping feature. The new owners of ReplayTV have dropped this feature. Similarly, I was in an electronics store last year, looking at a VCR with a built-in ad-skipping feature. The salesman told me that if I wanted this feature, I better buy it now -- because next year's model was dropping the ad-skipping capability. Why? Pressure from Hollywood had forced them to do so. Even TiVo has started to include more ads integrated into its subscription service.

Hollywood has even gotten Congress to help them out. House Resolution 4077, also known as the Piracy Deterrence and Education Act of 2004, makes it legal for DVD players to include a feature that permits automatic skipping of R-rated scenes. Yet, somehow not seeing this as inconsistent, Congress is also working on legislation that would specifically prohibit video players from including features that skip commercials.

Looming on the horizon: With DVD recorders growing in popularity and HD-capable recorders becoming cheaper, Hollywood (panicked at the prospect of movie piracy) is seeking restrictions on a user's ability to copy television broadcasts to a DVD. The days when you could make TV recordings for your personal use may soon be over. But that's another story. I'd tell you about it now. But we have to go to commercial.

This is the latest in a series of monthly mac.column.ted articles by Ted Landau. To see a list of previous columns, click here. To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here. To get Ted's latest book, Mac OS X Help Line, click here.

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