Custom Screening: Notes from a mad ad man

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I must confess that until this summer — when I was lucky enough to spend three nights in a hotel — I had not watched an entire TV program on an actual television in America.In February, I managed to squeeze in the last half hour of the Super Bowl. I’m afraid I did not have the patience or familiarity with the sport to watch the whole thing. To a foreigner, the NFL seems to challenge World War I’s ability to push the boundaries of how much money, manpower and time can be wasted for minimal territorial gains.
Apart from that unfortunate experience, my television viewing has been confined to iTunes, legal streaming, Netflix and (guiltily) Megaupload. Until my countrymen arrested the founder, Kim Dotcom who has spent his home detention (English-English for: house arrest) recording a rap song lampooning the quasi-legal campaign contributions he made to the far right candidate for mayor of Auckland City.
In the dark of the New England night, watching TV in its natural form, this columnist encountered the American TV advertisement. I had been lucky, in the virtual Eden of online streaming I had encountered few, if any ads. Now, faced with a veritable flood of them, I realised how ill prepared I was for their incessant, insidious consumer provocation.

It will come as a surprise to no one that television networks in the United States have the largest amount of advertising per hour of programming in the world. What is surprising is the stark increase in the ratio of advertising to programming in the last 50 years. Since the 1960s, the amount of advertising per hour of programming has doubled from 9 to 18 minutes per hour.  This has had the somewhat peculiar side effect of forcing networks to cut several minutes out of rerunning programming to accommodate extra advertising time.

Changes in American ad slots produce a ripple effect overseas. In the UK, where the standard program is 52 minutes long and government regulations prohibit more than 7 minutes of ads per hour, broadcasters are forced to think creatively to pad the extra 11 minutes, often resorting to trailers for network programming.

In smaller countries like Australia and New Zealand that are too small to produce any large amount of domestic content — much less produce anything watchable — networks are forced to load schedules with a mixture of British and American television. This means antipodean ad breaks are highly irregular and can come out-of-the-blue, a great ire to my grandmother — the original video pirate — who takes great delight in using the “pause” button on her VCR to cut out ad breaks.

Fortunately for my grandmother, the arrival of DVR type devices like Dish Network’s Auto Hop promise to automate this practice by erasing ads as they record programs. To someone like me, whose first experience of watching “Saturday Night Live,” actually live this weekend was an exercise in maintaining my interest throughout the far-too-frequent ad breaks; this machine comes as a welcome relief.

However, Auto Hop has received a lukewarm reception from establishment critics, keen to protect advertising revenue. On Monday, Time Warner Executive, Glenn Britt claimed that Ad Hop will damage the “ecosystem” of advertising and subscriber revenues. It is unclear where Mr. Britt fits humble viewers into this ecosystem . Are we to see an “Occupy Sunset Boulevard,” probably not. Britt’s remarks underscore the media industry establishment’s control over exactly how much of what we watch is what we choose, and how much is advertising selected for us.

I will confess that there is something quaintly democratic about television advertising. So long as you belong to a demographic with money to spend, and a will to spend it, there’s an ad somewhere out there for you. It’s an ancient Athenian sort of democracy — yes based on property and wealth. Of course, those without money to spend have ads that tell them to spend it anyway — a somewhat more contemporary Athenian democracy.

Perhaps the cold New England air stirred up the revolutionary in me. Are we dumping ads, like tea, into the information superhighway? Until programmers redress the imbalance of content versus advertising — legal or not — many of us will watch television the only way we have learnt to enjoy it, uninterrupted on the Internet.