Ad-ing insult to injury

Jan 28, 2002  •  Post A Comment

AOL is missing a bet. And this is not, day in and day out, a bet-missing operation. Still, it could scrounge up more dollars from customers if it found a way to run ads while you sit there at your computer waiting for AOL to “Initialize,” whatever that means, or waiting for its little “Welcome” screen to appear, or waiting for your e-mail, or waiting for a Web site to appear, or waiting for the chance to do more waiting.
As it is, AOL has got the waterfront pretty well covered-with ads, that is. You can’t sign on without exposure to an ad. And those of us who don’t have the newer fancy-schmancy DSL computer hookups have to wait while AOL composes the ad in front of our eyes, slowly adding graphics and other design elements, pokily composing a handsome display for some piece of overpriced junk you’d be a fool to purchase. Besides which it would take 15 minutes of filling out those stupid forms.
Speedy trickery
Now you also get an ad when you try to sign off AOL. A little notice on the screen tells you that you’re “disconnecting” from the mother ship, but of course you aren’t, because AOL has one more bit of salesmanship to perform. AOL is finding that space is finite, just as TV industry honchos have found that time is finite-or is it? What about those sneaky-creepy TV stations that are squeezing more ad time out of syndicated shows by electronically compressing the program content? For shame.
I remember years ago writing about a machine then called simply the Lexicon 5000 (or maybe 6000, or maybe 10,000)-a gizmo that could speed up the visual element in a program yet compensate for the added speed of the accompanying soundtrack by re-adjusting the pitch, thus preventing everybody in a show from sounding like a Munchkin.
This was at once a technical marvel and a dirty rotten trick to play on viewers, who have enough tricks played on them as it is.
Now apparently, the process has been refined further, and some stations routinely hypercompress the program so as to add more precious seconds of salable time. You have to wonder what the technological limitations are. I remember years ago when WOR-TV, then out of New York, was carried by enough cable systems to be considered a “superstation” even though Turner Broadcasting had invented the term. And at 11 o’clock on weeknights, WOR would do comedy lovers the favor of airing “Sgt. Bilko” reruns starring Phil Silvers (and my personal hero, Maurice Gosfield, as Doberman).
But as the nights went on, there was less and less “Bilko” and more and more bunco: WOR may not have had a Lexicon machine, but it did have a trigger-happy maniac in the sales division. The series had to carry an unconscionably heavy commercial load-so heavy that one night I counted 12 minutes out of the half-hour being devoted to ads. I deduced that WOR was ambitiously aiming for the Madison Avenue equivalent of a gold medal: 15 minutes of commercials, 14 minutes of program.
Who’s on first?
Imagine, commercial time outweighing program time within a given half-hour! Ted Bates would have been a-dancin’ in his grave. Since that time, Nickelodeon and Disney and lots of other cable networks have come perilously close to giving the larger slice of a time period to advertisers. Of course, the theoretical ideal is the infomercial, in which all the time is occupied by an advertiser, but that’s a different playing field.
Fox amazed us all during the baseball season, especially the playoffs and the World Series, with those gigantic electronic billboards that weren’t really there but which told us home viewers that “Ally McBeal”-in her latest desperation ploy to boost ratings-was coming back the next night. Why didn’t Fox try superimposing ads on the pitcher’s ass while it was at it?
The line between program content and commercial time had been hopelessly blurred again-and flagrantly, and with a kind of contemptuous arrogance: See? We can put ads anywhere we want. And you can’t stop us. So just sit there and take it, you poor sap.
When American Movie Classics started interrupting its formerly uninterrupted movies with commercial breaks last year, the rule was supposedy one break per movie-a rule that seems already to have been broken, and broken, of course, in the sacred name of greed. AMC thinks nothing of interrupting its half-hour popumentaries two or three times, just like a small UHF station in Bimidji, Minn., might do.
The great question, the immortal challenge, the not-so-impossible dream is, of course, to find more and more nooks and crannies into which additional commercials can be crammed. All the golf and tennis tournaments now are named after companies, aren’t they? Product placement continues apace in sitcoms and even some dramas. Maybe stations could find a way to sell those tests of the Emergency Broadcast System to advertisers. Even technical goofs might produce revenue: The preceding 45 seconds of unexpected dead air was brought to you by Freebisher’s Mortuary.
A few words from our sponsor
Oh, for the days when Arthur Godfrey merrily lampooned Lipton’s Chicken Noodle Soup over its alleged lack of chicken. The commercials were funny, and they were brief-a minute long, probably including Godfrey’s clowning around. God bless Alfred Hitchcock for warning us of commercial breaks and gently mocking those who created and paid for them. We knew it was never literally going to be “a word from our sponsor,” but who would have dreamed when the Hitchcock shows first ran that someday reruns would contain commercial breaks that are four minutes long. Or that Alfred might find himself on the cutting-room floor so that more packages of new-improved Tide or new-improved Pampers or new-improved Summer’s Eve could be hawked.
The advertising community is all aflutter now, though, because of new devices like TiVo that make it easier for viewers to skip the commercials and just watch the programs. Actually, TiVo gives you a peep at the first commercial in the break and the last one, so if the commercial were tempting enough, the TiVo user might very well decide to watch it instead of zooming ahead.
So the solution seems simple for advertisers: Make better commercials and people will watch them. Maybe even go to a small amount of trouble to watch them. Or at least slow them down to merely two or three times their normal speed (instead of seven to 10 times). It’s galling and ironic that while Madison Avenue wants to wreak havoc on the very concept of time with its barbaric compression technology, ad folk whine like sissies when the viewer gets to exert some measure of control over how much commercial time must be endured.
The way some of the Mad-Ave blowhards talk, you’d think it was un-American to skip a commercial. Like maybe it’s in the Bill of Rights or something that we have to watch them. Actually, it would make more sense to add a No. 6 to FDR’s “Five Freedoms”-something along the lines of “The Freedom Not to Be Importuned by Yammering Nincompoops.”