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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Commercial Breaks on TV: Antiquated or Here to Stay?

By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the impact of computer technology on television was already promising to be nothing short of revolutionary. Yet people seemed only able to grasp the contours of an upcoming basic shift both in how television would come to be delivered and how programming would be financed and presented. Young adults were on the leading crest of the wave. Even by 2012, they typically watched television programming from laptops and even ipads rather than television sets. Meanwhile, an older demographic was learning how to integrate television screens with the internet such that movies could be downloaded on a laptop and shown on a larger screen, completely bypassing commercial television even stored on “tibo” from interlarding the home.

Being somewhat slow, to say the least, in picking up on computer technology, I was afforded a hint in 2012 of what the new technology portended for television as my viewership dwindled down to PBS, movies on dvds, and television news from abroad available on the internet.  Even after just a few years of this new commercial-less habit, I found the occasional television movie with commercials on TNT and TBS to be rather unpalatable on account of all the commercial breaks. Just a few years earlier, I would have thought nothing of the interruptions. They were as though blinks to eyes. The human brain has an amazing ability to “ignore” the banal if it is taken as a given rather than contingent. It is the shift from “necessary” to “contingent” that the advent of computer technology had already by the second decade of the twenty-first century begun to “awaken” in human consciousness regarding television commercial-breaks. That a perceptual change, if shared by many, could impact society so tremendously in terms of changed mores is the real story here.

In my own experience, watching episodes of Downton Abbey on PBS uninterrupted by commercials for in some cases up to two hours at a time afforded me a new viewing experience regarding a television serial beginning in 2010. By the last few episodes of the third season, it had dawned on me that by being so ensconced for an uninterrupted hour or even two in the audio-visual story-world of Downton,  I could really get into the world of the story precisely because my perception of it was sustained. This experience gave me a new sense of how full the experience of story-telling can be. Although a film may have sequels, it is basically a couple of hours. In contrast, a serial benefits from “serial perceptions” over time of the particular story-world. With such a backdrop, the viewer can “really get into” the world presented during a sustained one- or two-hour presentation. From such a basis, the viewer can more fully appreciate the depth of characterization such as the case in Downton Abbey, whether it be Mr. Carson’s struggles with early twentieth-century “modernity” or granny’s Machiavellian nature, which is not so dark because it is for the good of the family. Moreover, a sustained experience of a fine manner of speaking and of manners can make an impression on a viewer’s own manner. Abstractly put, a more complete and richer experience of story-telling is afforded by the viewer being in the story-world as per a sustained perceptual experience. Returning from such an experience to a “chopped up” movie shown on commercial television, one is apt to find a new impatience with the commercial breaks. Were there really this many before? They are ruining the movie.  The flight away from commercial television has undoubtedly been facilitated as a result. In effect, the new experience had already made the old one obsolete even if the networks had not yet reached this insight.

If my experience of shifting from commercial to non-commercial television and dvds is any indication, the further decline in viewership could make commercial television networks even more desperate for quick-cash programming, such as the low-class American “talk shows” and “reality shows” that make such excellent fodder for weight-loss commercials (yes, “ouch”). The perpetuation of this strategy would only facilitate the flight of the more discerning viewers to less unseemly programming that is available at alternatives to commercial television and even the television set. As commercial-television viewership continues to decline, more pressure to add even more commercials for the networks to break even would mean even more “cheap” programming and more “chopping up” of shows and movies with commercial breaks. More people would be just fine passing on cable or satellite altogether and leaving the television set “unconnected.”

As a result, the role of the television set in the typical house or apartment would change fundamentally, including even how it is perceived. The device would go from something that is always on to something that is only used occasionally and for certain purposes, such as to play a dvd or serve as a larger computer screen for internet or movies. There was a time when I would have freaked out had my television set not been able to receive any channels. I remember the sense of panic when a storm would knock out cable. I’m cut off from the outside world! Even as early as 2013, however, I had become just fine with the “box” being left unconnected. I didn’t even bother hooking up my digital box. I had come to perceive the televsion as something that is to be used with my dvd player. I watched Downton Abbey simply by clicking “watch online” at PBS on my laptop. I felt no desire to watch anything on commercial television. Why go through the motions to be connected? Maybe keeping the home a little less connected is not such a bad thing after all.

Viewing the television set as a device to be occasionally used to play a downloaded movie or dvd would mean no longer seeing the set as something that is to be almost always on or even necessarily hooked up to receive broadcast channels. The addiction to constancy can thus perhaps be broken, if only in terms of television. In a sense, the transformation dimly anticipated even as early as 2013 would be one of increasing quiet, and thus privacy in the home as the outside world that is admitted is more closely narrowed to particular story-worlds of interest, absent exogenous “messages” and even programming.

The change being advanced can be viewed as rather positive in nature. Ironically, removing from the television set its constant airing of programming could return the home to its pre-television quietude. Moreover, the addiction to constancy—such as in constantly smoking or constantly having the television on—may come to be viewed as a distinctly twentieth-century cultural phenomenon. Put another way, activities that in other eras would have been indulged in occasionally may in the context of the twentieth century have fed an addiction to constancy—an almost-obsessive desire to keep doing something notwithstanding the decline in its marginal utility. Often the activity or product constant in use is rather insignificant, and thus easily hackneyed into daily use. Rather than viewing a drink or cigarette as indulged in occasionally for social occasions, “cocktail hour” and “a cigarette with coffee in the morning” (and, indeed, having a coffee every morning) were allowed to become part of the popular culture in the twentieth century, at least in America. The resulting dire health impacts should have given people a hint that items geared by their nature to occasional use at best were part of a compulsive desire for constancy. The regular or even constant use of such banal items overstates their significance.

Although not having the health downside of nicotine or caffeine, television too had come by the 1970s to a constancy not justified by the underlying significance of the programming. “Being connected” meant always having the TV on in one’s house, even if this meant giving up too much control over what enters one’s home (e.g., commercials). The “being connected” to the outside world we allowed to become a constancy. Silence eclipsing the “white noise” was as though tantamount to succumbing unconditionally to a void of existential emptiness. How strange this fear would have sounded to a person living in the Victorian world before even phonographs and telephones, not to mention radios and televisions.

If one had looked to the future from 2012 or even further back in 2010, the question might have been whether computers would come to be sucked into the illusion of constancy-as-fullness, essentially replacing the television set as hegemon in the house. Already by 2013, smartphones and ipods had become the new means for constant connectivity (especially for young adults). Is this sort of constant communication really a deterrent to the sort of boredom that comes with an empty sense of being? Ironically, might there be more fullness of being were stillness or quiet to return as the default in the home? Perhaps a hypertrophic desire to constantly be connected externally undercuts one’s connectivity to oneself and one’s family. Severing the television cable permits an opportunity. The question is perhaps whether we moderns have the stamina to tolerate the resulting sense of void in our homes without instinctively filling it with another means of constant connectivity. Put another way, might the twentieth century household be remembered as an aberration rather than as the beginning of the modern world come into our living rooms? At the very least, the eclipse of commercial television means more control for the viewer in terms of what is admitted into the home.