Video Pong is just fine unless you happen to be the little white dot that gets ponged. A television viewer often has good reason to feel like that dot; the folks doing the ponging are the advertisers. We are pummelled over and over with messages, and the only thing that could make this ordeal worse would be to increase the number and frequency of the pummels.
That is, in essence, what the Justice Department wants to do. It has just thrown an anvil to a drowning swimmer. Earlier this month Justice filed a civil anitrust suit against one of the viewer's few remaining friends and protectors, the voluntary code of the National Association of Broadcasters [NAB]. Justice says his code, which places nominal [actually, inadequate] restrictions on the number of commercial interruptions during various hours of the broadcast day, constitutes a restraint of trade and a conspiracy to keep advertising costs high by limiting the amount of commercial time that can be sold.
The Queen of Hearts herself couldn't have come up with a loonier recipe for reform, nor timed it with less grace. Only now at long last is the NAB responding to complaints not only from viewers and cranky critics but from advertisers themselves about the excessive amount of "clutter" befouling the video landscape. The near extinction of the 60-second commerical -- and the concurrent ascendancy of the 30-second spot -- combined with a new fanaticism in airing self-promotional spiels, or promos, on stations, networks and even public television, have made television a relentless perpetual message gun that fires directly at the viewer over and over again.
Justice and its suit would only make this worse. It would open the door for what the industry itself has had the decency to discourage -- 15- and 10-second spots -- and it would also open the floodgates to an avalanche of-well, wait a minute. Skip the metaphors. More and shorter commercials will simply make watching television unbearable.
Coincidentally enough, the business pages of newspapers and magazines are now carrying stories about a fiendish new technological breakthrough that allows advertisers to compress into 20 seconds or less what it had previously taken an announcer 30 seconds to communicate on a soundtrack, so that commercials of the future may have even more brain-buffeting information stuffed into them than they do now. Of course, that doesn't mean more real information. It merely means more repetition of the same information, since reinforcement is still the advertisers' favorite and probably most annoying weapon.
As Sidney Greenstreet commanded while pounding on the conference table in "The Hucksters," a late-'40s movie about advertising, the byword at many agencies still is, "Irritate, irritate, irritate, irritate." One of the most common of all popular commercial formats is similar to a drill for learning a foreign language; a theme is established and its key words repeated at least three times in succession.
A classic example of this goes as follows: "I was flat, till I went fluffy. I was flat, till I went fluffy. I was flat, till I went flufffy." Ads for a new "light" beer use the same ploy, with various testimonials to the effect that, "I used to want more, but now I want less," over and over and over. That one uses three repetitions followed by the direct pitch of the product in question, followed by a fourth reinforcement at the end of the commercial.
In this way do children learn useless catch phrases like "Ring around the collar," and for this reason idiot jingles and slogans can remain in one's brain for years, crowding the shelves of our memory units with junkthink and folderol.
That many of the commercials are done with a light or humorous touch doesn't really lessen the burden on the over-burdened 20th century mind. Few jokes, let alone few commercials are funny after five or six exposures. Repetition is numbing, depressing; it can have a negative emotional effect on those subjected to it.
Only a sadist would prescribe as the remedy for television an increase in the number of commercials. Already we are operating beyond sane maximums. Action for Childen's Television [ACT], the Newton, Mass, group that tries to protect at least children from the barrage, estimates that the average viewing child sees no less than 20,000 separate commercial messages a year. This is based on the 25 hours of TV viewing a week that Nielsen estimates average children do. And that number is going up.
It means that by the time a kid is 18, if he or she has been watching television from the age of 2, as millions do, the child will have been the target for 340,000 commercial torpedos. Many of these messages will be directed not at children at all but at an adult, and so by any standard the time the child spends with them it wasted time, dead time. The only thing that might be accomplished is that the kid is drilled into patterned consumer behaviour or, more beneficially perhaps, turned into a cynic who scoffs at every claim heard.
Few commercials contain any information that we want or need. In print, we can skip over advertisements that do not interest us or do not apply to us. If we are not remotely in the market for a new car, we can bypass the new car ads. With television, we are trapped. Men must sit there as long-line bras and dreamy dessert toppings are hawked, and women have to endure "the pump" and the carwax that lasts from here to eternity.In times of economic pinch like the present, the proportion of entertaining commercials goes down precisely as the proportion of hard-sell, hard-nosed commercials goes up. This makes viewing more of a chore than ever.
It could be argued that stations liberated from the NAB's voluntary guidelines [30 percent of U.S. T.V. stations do not subscribe to the code anyway] wil still be reluctant to swamp the airwaves with ads for fear of scaring viewers away. After all, some radio stations have used as listener lures the commercial-free day. But radio listening is a habitual activity unlike television watching; people listen to radio stations, but by and large they watch telvision programs.
We must remember that advertisers, not viewers, are the customers of the networks and lcal stations. Viewers are justt the goods that stations sell their customers.
All it will take is one or two stations or one network brave enough to run a commercial every three minutes and everybody will do it. Why Rep. Lionel Van Deerlin [D-Calif.], author of a rewrite of the 1934 communications act, has even adovcated putting pools of commercials on public television, which is already overloaded with underwriter plugs and its own endless parade of promos for upcoming programs [replete with the kind of Don't-miss-it" browbeating typical of commercial stations].
Good grief, there will be no escape!
And to think that the mad new ad age will have all been brought about by a department called Justice. Har har.
Meanwhile, the one arguably positive effect of the Justice Department's suit, if successfful, might be to drive millions of viewers away from message-perforated commercial television and into the waiting arms of the cablecasters and the pay TV'ers. The suit could be the greatest boon to cable and pay TV in history; it seems depressngly more likely, however, that it will merely prove the most contrary and daffily conceived scheme to come out of Washington since Prohibition.