Advertising and Cable Television

Not too long ago I mentioned that my wife and I were ready to give up cable television. Perhaps strangely, our concern stemmed not only or even primarily from the content of television shows. After all, if we do not like the content of a show we can easily simply avoid watching it. Will and Grace is a show that glamorizes the homosexual lifestyle. We do not like the show and what it represents so we can easily avoid watching it. Rather, the primary reason we have decided we’ll have to abandon cable is the commercials. We can control what we watch and what the children watch but it is much more difficult to control the television commercials that play six times every hour.

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This morning FoxNews has an article that deals particularly with commercials.

Ever since Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, citizens and children’s advocacy organizations have called upon the FCC, broadcasters and even Congress to re-examine television content and the guidelines that rate it.

But one type of programming that is viewed by all audiences at all hours on every network has continued to escape regulation: commercials.

From Paris Hilton’s spicy burger ad to the ever-proliferating erectile dysfunction commercials, many parents have not been happy with recent television ads. And now, domain registering Web site is fighting to reprise its controversial 2005 Super Bowl ad during this year’s upcoming game.

Senator Mark Pryor, at the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation open forum on decency, spoke for many parents when he said, “I have a 10-year-old and 11-year-old at home, and my wife and I are scared to death for them to turn on the television without us in the room.” And even when parents are in the room children can be exposed to words and images that are inappropriate for them (and often inappropriate for anyone!). Another Senator, Barack Obama, described himself as “‘a parent who has had to sit through uncomfortable Cialis commercials while watching television with my 7- and 4-year-old daughters.’ The ad Obama cited, for the erectile dysfunction medication Cialis, features snuggly moments between couples of all ages to the tune of The Ronnettes’ ‘Be My Baby.’ And FDA regulations require medical ads to specify risks verbally, resulting in somewhat embarrassing dialogue. ‘Cialis is only for men healthy enough for sexual activity … erections lasting longer than four hours, though rare, require immediate medical help,’ the ad warns.” Of course Obama has not had to sit through the commercials, has he? No one has forced him to watch television, particularly with his daughters present. But I digress.

The article goes on to describe several recent commercials that have raised the eyebrows of many parents, including a commercial in which Paris Hilton, wearing high heels and a skimpy bathing suit, seductively washed a car (‘seductively washed a car’ – something of an bizarre concept, isn’t it?). The product she was selling? Hamburgers from Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s.

Now I’m sure none of this comes as a great surprise to anyone who has a television. We all know that the commercials are becoming racier and more provocative. In fact, advertising in general is relying increasingly on shock value in place of cleverness and innovation. There would not be much a story here were it not for another article about commercials I read only a few days ago. An article at CNET and other media venues discussed digital video recorders and the effect they are having on commercials. In the U.S. broadcasters and advertisers are growing increasingly worried about the effects of TiVo and other digital recorders on ad-watching and thus on ad revenue. After all, these devices allow people to record programs and then easily skip over advertisements.

In Japan the problem has become so prevalent that broadcasters have begun playing commercials that highlight the benefits of advertising to viewers. They point out, correctly of course, that without advertising there can be no television programming. The economy of cable television is such that subscriptions are not nearly sufficient to cover the costs of creating shows. It is advertising that allows viewers to enjoy “quality” programming.

There is something of an irony here, isn’t there? Cable programmers are demanding that we watch their commercials, yet are creating advertising that is increasingly sexual and insipid. While driving away the intended audience with inappropriate ads, they are at the same time blaming these people for not watching them. The cable companies cannot have it both ways. A parent, cuddling his young children on the couch, need only sit through a few highly-sexualized ads before guilt and common sense drive him to find an alternative. If the cable companies want us to watch advertising they are going to have to insist that advertisers clean up their act. They are going to have to regulate the advertising they pipe into our homes.

P.S. – I wanted to title this article “Be Thou My Television” which I thought was terribly clever. But then I found that I have already used that title on another article.