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Monday, July 31, 2006

Back after these messages from our sponsors

American and Canadian TV is unwatchable.

Don't get me wrong, there is nothing intrinsically bad about the shows that I saw whilst in North America (or at least it isn't any worse than British TV). I just mean that you can't watch it. There are ad breaks every few minutes, literally.

One evening sticks particularly in my mind. I had gone to bed early, ready for an early morning flight, but had gotten sucked in to a series of documentaries on the The Learnng Channel. Ironically they were documentaries that were previously aired in the UK on Channel 5, but which I had missed. I was watching one and I suddenly realised I was watching an advert (there is often no warning given and adverts will even cut in mid-sentence). Since the ad was tailored to the show, I was 30 seconds into it before it clicked that it wasn't just a strange switch in style by the director. The ad break lasted about 3 minutes, before the programme resumed exactly where it had left off. Less than 4 minutes later (there was an alarm clock built into the Hotel TV) I suddenly realised that I was watching another ad break. Again, yet another 3 minutes! Thus, out of 10 minutes of this show, 6 were adverts!

I already knew that things were pretty bad. I started watching Star Trek TNG in the late 1980s. BBC2 (non-commercial of course) allocated about 50 minutes per "hour long" episode. By the late nineties, ST:DS9 was down to 45 minutes, with plenty of filler either side of the show. By the early 2000s, An episode of ST:Voy could be broadcast in less than 45 minutes with at least 2 minutes trailers eitherside for upcoming BBC shows. That means that about 0ne third of US airtime is given over to commercials.

The commercials are also very different. I notice now that US car manufacturers are starting to advertise the fuel economy of their cars (amazing how a little jump in the oil prices focuses the mind, eh) although the advert for Hummer steered clear of any potentially embarrassing admissions, preferring instead to focus on the Humvee as the perfect way to deliver the kids to school (I kid you not). Most strange though, is that unlike in the UK, manufacturers can advertise prescription medications direct to the punters. This has resulted in the big names in pharmaceuticals staging hokey looking ads with "Grateful patients" and the instruction to "badger your physician today!". Of course, it isn't a complete free-for-all - they have to verbally list the side-effects, and this entails them reading out at triple speed the list of contraindications on the back of the box. I'm amazed anyone buys them! It's no wonder homeopaths, who aren't regulated and can tell you any bullshit they want, are doing so well - I'll bet they don't list the side-effects (chief among them being IT DOESN'T WORK!).

I suppose this all makes me a little more gratefull for the BBC. Not only is the BBC output nominally commercial free (at least they don't interupt their programmes), it also keeps the opposition on a tight leash. I suspect that commercial broadcasters are acutely aware of just how bad commercials seem when they are confronted by the BBC's output. I suspect that we would be well along the American's route of giving over 1/3 of our airtime and interupting programmes willynilly, if it wasn't for the stark contrast of the BBC. I found myself longing for the BBC - I suspect that if ITV et al tried to emulate America and Canada, they would simply lose viewers to the BBC.

For that reason, I have happily paid my TV licence ever since I went to Uni 11 years ago and wouldn't contemplate not paying it. As a Greek flatmate once told me "never let them commercialise the BBC - you don't know what you have until you see the rest of the world". Quite.



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