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No respite from TV ads run amok

Published Jan. 4, 2005|Updated Aug. 24, 2005

If you're like me and watch a lot of television, no doubt you see a lot of spots. No, I don't mean the kind you see after you bump your head. I'm talking about TV commercials.

When I was selling television air time in the early '70s, the term "spot" was first used to refer to television ads that ran only in certain "spots" _ cities selected by the advertiser, unlike ads that ran simultaneously in every city on a network. In time, all TV commercials came to be called "spots."

So much for how "Spot" was born. Spot is now, I think you'll agree, running all over the place. See Spot run. Run and run and run.

How could this have happened? Well, bear with me for a little more history. TV stations are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission and are expected to serve the public interest. Certainly, no viewer would be interested in seeing lots of commercials but, for whatever reason, the commission did nothing to prohibit overcommercialization.

Fortunately for the public, in those first years of TV, stations subscribed on their own to the Code of Good Practices of the National Association of Broadcasters. It established limits on the number of commercial minutes allowed for broadcast every hour. While the limits were voluntary, they were widely followed: 9{ minutes every hour between 8 and 11 p.m., slightly more during other times. Fifty-and-a-half minutes of program every hour! How sweet that was.

As television grew, so did the number of advertisers that were eager to sell their products in this burgeoning marketplace. Well, you guessed it. The temptation of making so much money from televising commercials was irresistible. Many stations, realizing the limitations were voluntary, either resigned from the NAB or simply flouted the rules.

This change in management behavior did not go unnoticed by the FCC. From the early beginnings of TV in 1946, recognizing and respecting the self-regulation of the broadcasters, the commission had been tolerant of the increasing commercialization. But in early 1963, the agency announced it was contemplating policies designed to control the number of advertisements broadcast by television stations.

Talk about naive. The FCC soon realized it was David fighting Goliath, the fearsome broadcast lobby. No contest. The FCC-proposed rules were abandoned. And, as if that wasn't enough for stations to celebrate, they got another reason to rejoice: In 1981, the Justice Department ruled that the NAB Code of Good Practices was a violation of federal antitrust law. Unbelievable. That was like opening the backyard gate and, for the last 23 years, allowing Spot to run and run and run.

If the FCC, from the beginning, had had rules for commercial limitations with every television station license that it granted, we wouldn't be inundated today with the nightly flood of commercials. The FCC has the authority and, I believe, the responsibility, to leash Spot. It hasn't. As a result, today, on average, there are 16 minutes of commercials every hour between 8 and 11 p.m. That's 32 spots, if they're 30 seconds each, and more if some are 10 or 20 seconds each. Mix in station and program promos and we're bombarded with 40-50 messages every hour.

Give us a break from the "breaks!"

It's not likely the number of spots crammed into TV programs will be reduced any time soon. And that, you'll probably agree, is only the half of it. It's not bad enough that we have to watch so many spots; it's worse that so many of them are irritating, if not offensive. Unfortunately, getting advertisers to change the content of their messages is even more hopeless than getting the FCC to regulate their number.

For now, there is no cure for seeing a lot of "spots." We can only dream of making roadkill of that annoying little Geico lizard and cooking a gabby AFLAC duck l'orange.

Jack Bray is a retired broadcast executive and a substitute teacher. He lives in Dunedin. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.


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