Chance of missing TV ads getting remote


April 22, 2001|By R.D. Heldenfels | R.D. Heldenfels,AKRON BEACON JOURNAL

You've gotten smarter about how you watch television. To combat that, TV has gotten worse.

Viewers' ability to ignore commercials has found TV moving ever closer to nonstop advertising through product placements in shows, on-screen crawls and the use of promotional logos in the middle of programs.

Even what looks like information can double as an advertisement. ESPN's "bottom line" on-screen display of sports scores and information also includes plugs for ESPN's programs, related channels and ancillary products -- like a recent promo urging people to buy their NFL Draft gear from a Web site.

Cable channel Oxygen has taken that bottom-line approach a step further, with an information line at the bottom of programming and commercials, supplementing ads with an additional slogan line, the product's 800 telephone number or its Internet address.

Those are just part of the commercial clutter that comes when, in the middle of prime-time programs, NBC tosses on a graphic promoting the new series "Weakest Link." Or when MTV runs countdowns to a big event like its annual music awards during other shows. Or when the TV picture from baseball telecasts is shrunk so half the screen can be used to remind viewers that there are tickets available for coming games.

Think, too, of the products in program names, such as this weekend's "Kraft Premier Movie" telecast of a new version of "Murder on the Orient Express."

And those are at least blatant product promotions. Considerably subtler are the use of sponsors' products within programs, as when a player on "Survivor: The Australian Outback" pined for Doritos.

There have also been corporate tie-ins along the same line, most notoriously the way Disney World has popped up as a location for episodes of shows on -- surprise! -- Disney-owned ABC.

The result is annoying, irritating, appalling and completely understandable.

A couple of things have happened in television to create the constant commercial. First, the load of traditional ads has steadily grown over the years. While the amount varies from show to show, you can expect to devote 25 percent to 30 percent of your commercial-TV viewing to ads.

Although there's nothing stopping programmers from increasing the load, commercials may have reached their saturation point, says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

"The old notion that you had a captive audience that would sit through commercials is gone," says Thompson.

Technology has made the ignoring of formal commercials easier and easier.

Remote controls for TV sets let viewers skip around during the long commercial breaks. Recording devices, from videocassette recorders to the newer personal video recorders like TiVO, add to the ease with which viewers can zap through ads.

The result has been a changing look to television.

The constant logos for stations and networks in the corner of TV screens tell zap-happy viewers where they are, for when the Nielsen head-counters inquire. On-screen weather maps and news crawls that don't completely interrupt the programs are a way to keep viewers informed without waiting for a commercial break when they may be channel-hopping. Plus the maps and crawls serve a secondary purpose of promoting a coming newscast.

Thompson finds the on-screen ad load distressing, saying that on-screen logos during important shows like "The West Wing" are "like a postage stamp on a great painting."

Still, he says, "I find [an on-screen graphic] less offensive than product placement because it doesn't interrupt the narrative. ... I'd rather see that than ["The West Wing's" President] Bartlet turn to his wife and say, 'Let's go watch 'Will & Grace.' "

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