Public resentment of television commercials has grown steadily in the United States over the past 18 years, a Washington Post national poll of attitudes toward television suggests.
Dislike of commercials is now so widespread and deep that there is little doubt, the poll suggests, that a new market consisting of people on all income levels is receptive to alternatives to regular commercial programming.
Some viewers, but not a great many, have switched to public TV. Others, apparently unenthralled by the offerings of public TV or unable to receive it, have simply begun turning off their TV sets more and more.
More than one-third of those interviewed in The Post poll said they would be willing to pay a small amount yearly just to have television without commercials. That proportion -- 36 percent -- translates into more than 50 million people out of an adult population of 150 million.
It represents an increase of 50 percent since 1960, when, in a landmark poll of attitudes toward TV, 24 percent of those interviewed said they would pay to have television free of commercials.
The implication is that new television teehnology -- home TV recorders and videocassettes or discs -- is made to order for those most offended by TV commercials. As a group, those viewers are somewhat more affluent than the rest of the population and more able to afford the equipment. The poll shows that while they dislike commercials intensely, they enjoy TV entertainment as much as the rest of the population does.
Great numbers of people have always objected to one aspect or another of TV commercials. What if different today is that those objections seem to have spread and hardened over the years. The 1960 poll, for example, asked people whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement
"Commercials are ordinarily in poor taste and very annoying."
Forty percent agreed. The same question was asked in another poll in 1970, and 43 percent agreed.In The Post poll, conducted at the end of October, 54 percent agreed, overall. Among those who said they would pay to be rid of commercials, 70 percent agreed.
Similar patterns emerged in response to other questions. In 1960 and 1970, more than 60 percent of those interviewed said they felt that most TV commercials were too long. Since then, individual commercials have tended to become much shorter, with the frequent one-minute spots of earlier years being replaced by many 15or 30-second advertising breaks.
Yet The Post survey still found 58 percent of those interviewed agreeing with the statement that most commercials are too long. Among those who said they would pay to have commercials dropped, 73 percent said they are too long.
While TV officials insist that commercials are not played at volumes louder than other material, most viewers feel otherwise. A total of 56 percent in The Post poll agreed with the statement that "TV commercials are too loud."
One thing commercials have accomplished, The Post poll suggests, is the building of a strong skepticism in the public. A "caveat emptor" sign lights up when a commercial comes on. "Do you find that TV commercials are generally accurate or inaccurate in the way they describe products?" The Post poll asked.
Thirty-one percent of those interviewed said commercials were accurate, 63 percent said they were inaccurate and 6 percent volunteered no opinion. The great majority of those who thought they were generally accurate didn't think they were all that accurate, though, with only 6 percent labeling them "very accurate."
As usual, the group that said it would pay for TV without commercials had even stronger opinions. Among them, only 4 percent thought commercials very accurate, 23 percent thought them "somewhat accurate" and 69 percent thought them inaccurate.
As might be expected, those with the most money are the people most likely to say they would pay to be rid of commercials. Among people interviewed whose annual family incomes were $12,000 a year or less, 31 percent said they would pay small amount to have television without commercials. Among those with annual family incomes of $30,000 or more, that figure rose to 52 percent.
Regardless of income, however, those who object to TV commercials said they watch less commercial TV and somewhat more public TV than the rest of the population. On the average, those who say they would pay to be rid of commercials reported watching two hours and 32 minutes of commercial TV daily; the rest reported watching two hours and 44 minutes -- a difference of 12 minutes a day, or almost an hour and a half a week.
While that difference may not be great, the perceived difference in viewing habits between the two groups is striking. Among people who say they would not pay for commercial-free, TV, 49 percent say they are watching less TV than they did five years ago. Among those who would pay, 61 percent say they are watching less these days.
That pattern holds for all income groups. In the broad lower-middle income range, for example, including people whose annual family incomes are between $12,000 and $20,000 a year, 62 percent of those who said they would pay to be rid of commercials also said they are watching less TV now than they did five years ago.
Public TV appears to exert some slight extra pull toward those who dislike commercials the most. Among those who say they would pay to eliminate commercials, 77 percent report watching at least some public TV -- amounting to 36 minutes a day, on the average. Among that rest of the population, 67 percent say they watch at least some public TV, and the average amount for them is 27 minutes a day.
Despite the growing resentment of commercials, a majority of people -- albeit a declining majority -- still feel that commercials "are a fair price to pay for the entertainment you get." In 1960, 75 percent of those interviewed agreed with that statement; in 1970, 70 percent agreed with it. In the 1978 Post poll, 67 percent agreed. Even 58 percent of those who said they would pay to be rid of commercials said they agreed.