TV commercials are like spinach and brussels sprouts. You may not like them, but it's in your long-term best interest to consume them regularly.
For this revelation -- the gist of it, if not the green-leafy analogy -- we can thank Jamie Kellner, who, as chairman and chief executive of TBS Inc., oversees CNN, TNT, TBS, the Cartoon Network and the WB broadcast network. At a news conference the other day with visiting TV critics, Kellner warned of a potential seismic shift in the way we pay for what we watch, a shift that we may want to avert. If we don't stop dodging the ads on TV, he said, we need to start preparing ourselves for fees well in excess of what we're already shelling out to cable operators.
You may be one of those viewers who hasn't sat through an entire commercial in years, unless it was part of a classic-ads special that featured Messrs Clean and Whipple. If so, you may be saying, "Wait a minute! Nobody's gonna tell me what I should watch!" But give Kellner a fair hearing. His comments were prompted by, among other things, a new study that found that in homes that have TiVo or similar digital technology that allows the user to become his or her own programmer, 71 percent are skipping all the commercials in programs recorded. Not fast-forwarding through the ads, as in the case of TV shows taped on VCRs, but programming the machine so that the ads aren't recorded to begin with.
"They've actually developed a device where you can push the button one time and eliminate the entire commercial pod, including the network's promotion," he said. "So you can go from content, eliminate all of that in-between, you know, nonprogram material, and then come back up into content." Kellner acknowledged that fewer than 1 percent of U.S. households have TiVo or something like it, so it's no biggie. But with cable and satellite companies discussing incorporating the devices into set- top boxes they place in subscribers' homes, that figure could rise to 70 to 80 percent of all households, he foresees.
"If you take that and couple it with the 70-plus percent of the people that are not watching commercials, it's very easy to project that with five or 10 years, there's no more commercial, ad-supported television of any consequence," he said.
Here, it's worth remembering that, except for straight-up pay channels like HBO and Showtime, it's not just the NBCs and Foxes that are ad-supported. Even basic cable channels such as ESPN, the History Channel and Comedy Central are heavily subsidized by commercials. We pay small change for them because advertisers pay the freight.
Kellner insists that he isn't advocating ad-supported TV, just trying to make viewers aware of what they stand to lose. "I'm not opposed to having commercial- less television," he said. "I'm a television person. We make it, and we find a way to sell it, get a profit from it. That's what my business is.
"I will make a living either way. All I'm saying is, before we move off and do this, everybody [needs to] understand that this is how the programming is paid for. If it's not paid for that way [by advertisers], it either goes away or we find a new way to pay for it. And the only way I know of is, you write a check. Don't think for a moment that there is a free lunch somewhere involved in this."
Not even a vegetable lunch, apparently. So read the writing on the cable bill. The next time you get the urge to read a bit of Leviticus or People when a Taco Bell ad comes on during "Friends," resist it. The next time you play back the episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond" you videotaped off the air two weeks ago, don't fast-forward through the commercial. Slow them down, study them, take in every nuance. And if you're using TiVo, consider occasionally programming it to eliminate everything but the commercials and then sit yourself down for an ad marathon.
And have some asparagus while you're at it.
Noel Holston, Newsday. July 17, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Newsday, Inc.. All rights reserved.