Aw, Shoot!

The first TV commercial in the U.S. aired on July 1, 1941, and not six months later Japanese air and naval forces destroyed Pearl Harbor. Coincidence? I’m not sure. But that first commercial began the march to a world where 20 minutes of commercials per televised hour has become common.

Some cable networks air so many commercials in a half-hour slot that shows require heavy editing just to fit. Watching a rerun of Leave It to Beaver or Curb Your Enthusiasm on a commercial channel is an exercise in filling in the blanks. Wait? Who was that guy? Why are they mad at him?

If TV advertising were water, we’d all drown before The Today Show signed off. Yet we’ve somehow survived only to learn that those who covet our coin have put some new cartridges in their clip. They’re called “secondary events”—basically they are nothing less than electronic tumors superimposed digitally on the show as it’s broadcast.

Computer-generated events can be as simple as a trademark that occupies the screen’s lower righthand corner. These are sometimes called “logo bugs,” and a great many networks use them in the apparent belief that we’re too stupid to know which channel we’re watching.

A secondary event can also be a complicated visual message promoting an upcoming show or some other happening. It can occupy a quarter of your viewing area for 10 seconds or longer. The other evening, I recorded a Law & Order re-run on TNT. The next morning I counted its secondary events, a lonely exercise but one worth doing. If you’re a masochist.

The primary advertising hit in five bursts: at 4, 13, 23, 38, 50, and 59 minutes into the show. The five breaks contained a total of 42 commercials of varying lengths and amounted to 22 minutes of viewing, leaving Jack McCoy and the New York legal system only 38 minutes to convict the accused.

During most of the hour, the TNT logo bug squatted in my screen’s lower right corner. Twice, a promotional message for season premieres materialized at the bug’s immediate left and remained there for an average of eight minutes.

On eight occasions, a silent secondary event swept from left to right across the screen. Counting the sporadic appearances of the logo bug as a single happening, I had to watch no fewer than 12 secondary events.

Having worked at three national ad agencies, I quite understand advertising’s role in a free market. But enough is enough. And then some. If I behave like an obedient consumer and sit through 42 commercials in an hour, I have given the marketers sufficient opportunity.

Neither Elvis Presley nor I ever worked as a TV critic, but now that I’ve written this piece, we share non-professional credits in the field. As an amateur critic, Elvis was superb; when a program displeased him, he was known to fire a large-caliber handgun at his TV set. Describing one such incident, an Elvis sidekick wrote, “He just put down his breakfast, drew a gun, blew the TV out, and said, ‘That’ll be enough of that [expletive].’”

So far, I’ve restrained myself from going the Elvis route.