Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer
The NFL was finally back in (regular season) action this past weekend and there were few other females as excited about this as I was, especially very few European females. However, aside from my team losing their season opener (let’s not talk about it, seriously), I noticed again a feature of American television in general – and football broadcasts in particular – that really makes me hate watching live: the mind-boggling frequency of (commercial) breaks.
Basically, live American television is unwatchable, period. And that should worry a lot of people.
I struggled with the frequency of commercial breaks during scripted television shows during my time in Atlanta so much that even though technically I could finally watch my favorite shows live, I didn’t. I waited for the DVR to finish recording and then watched the episodes, even if that meant I was a few hours or sometimes even a day behind the initial live broadcast and hence couldn’t participate in some of the lively (get it?) debates on my Twitter feed.
I simply could not be bothered with watching a mere seven minutes of a show and then watch two minutes of commercials, which were too loud, repetitive and all-around unappealing.
I was bothered by the length of the commercial breaks because they neither provided enough time to go to the bathroom and heat up another hot pocket, nor were they short enough not to make me groan with annoyance watching them. The German concept of 15-20 minutes of scripted show interrupted by 3-6 minutes of commercials is much more conducive to toilet breaks and replenishing the food and drink supply.
This problem is greatly exacerbated during football broadcasts, especially those of the NFL. Sometimes a play such as a punt takes less than a minute and it is right back to commercials. At no other point do I feel so reduced to nothing more than a consumer who is supposed to give companies money than when I am watching NFL football. The action on the field doesn’t even start up again until the commercials have finished – a phenomenon I had to explain to some foreign exchange students who were at a professional football game with me in the US and wondered why nothing was happening on the field even though the Atlanta Falcons were standing at the ready.
Furthermore, the more I think about how a live broadcast of a scripted TV show is structured in the US, the more I understand why so many people still do not consider television shows “art” or at least “respectable”. No matter how much we TV critics analyze and praise certain shows, the commercials that are interspersed in a live broadcast have the power to destroy everything and anything in their path, wreaking havoc on any artistic expression contained within a television show (which critics usually watch as commercial-free screeners). There is a reason why HBO shows are successful besides their content. Their presentation is just so much more relaxing and appealing and makes the viewer feel like a viewer, not a consumer.
That I, personally, also just do not respond to any of the commercials on American television may be based on the fact that I grew up in a different culture and was hence socialized differently. To me, American commercials scream a lot of numbers and prices at me (prices are almost never mentioned in German commercials), show me cars I don’t want because they waste too much fuel, and present gender roles I am disgusted by.
The sheer volume of the commercials is not an exclusively American problem, it occurs in the European market as well and it is one of the main reasons why my remote almost never leaves my hand while I am watching TV and the mute button is the most frequently pushed button on it.
During last Sunday’s NFL broadcast it was particularly annoying to me that the Fox affiliate I was watching insisted on promoting the MLB on ESPN in every! single! break! and I just happen to not like baseball at all (again, this could stem from me not being a born and raised American). But even when watching an NFL broadcast that is not trying to shove baseball down your throat, the commercials during the game breaks are horribly repetitive, usually offering a variety of 5 to 10 different clips over and over and over again. It’s the perfect recipe for losing any viewer’s interest and turning them into mindless, consumption-oriented drones.
While I do not subscribe to the dogma that our internet- and media-saturated age automatically makes (young) people dumber, lazier, lonelier, more violent et cetera, I cannot deny that I am noticing people’s attention spans growing shorter and shorter. I even notice this in myself. I am seldom still capable of doing just one thing for a long period of time, unless it is something I am really, really interested in, like playing Mass Effect.
I am, however, a subscriber to the theory that the media cultivate their own recipients, meaning if they challenge them, the recipients will “evolve” and rise to the challenge. Think of it this way: when feeding your pet, you can either just shove food in their adorable face, or you can make them work for it, like you reward them with treats for performing a trick. Our media, especially television, could cultivate a kind of viewer who relishes and cherishes shows that are complex, intelligent, deep and artistic by offering more of – if not exclusively -these shows. Such heartbreaking early cancellations as those of Firefly, Pushing Daisies or My So-Called Life would be a thing of the past.
Am I being a bit of a utopian dreamer? Of course I am. One almost has to be in these cynical times. Being a TV columnist and critic it is an essential skill to fool oneself into thinking that the actual content of television still matters to anyone in the “money department” of television networks. It should though, because the migration of viewers away from traditional television and into the on-demand sector (HBO, Netflix etc.) is a screeching alarm that has been sounding for quite some time. Not only is the time shift and place shift aspect of such on-demand and subscription services a big draw, the fact that they are (largely) commercial-free is probably the biggest initial appeal along with the instant availability instead of waiting for the – also commercial-free – DVD or BluRay sets.
As it stands, traditional television is degenerating into an empty shell constructed to present more goods for consumption. The original content of the glass has been emptied to make room for more “messages” (don’t you love they still call commercials “messages”?) that no one wants to hear and no one should have to hear.
I don’t miss not being able to watch live American television and if I didn’t love my Packers so damn much, I’d stop doing it all together and I suspect sooner or later everyone will.
Author: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer
Born in Germany, lived in the US, now in the UK. Always taking my love for TV and writing with me. Life participator. Blogger. Gaming enthusiast.