Ads on TV suck, right? Surely the point of TV is the shows, and since ads generally distract from the shows (by being loud and obnoixous and spoiling the mood, by breaking your train of thought, by shortening the shows, etc) they’re therefore bad. Aren’t they? There are some obvious wins to ads: they give you time for to go to the toilet, or to get more beer from the fridge without missing your show; and they help inform you of goods and services you might be interested in. An additional indirect benefit of ads is that they help ensure commercial television plays shows that are interesting, entertaining or useful to a lot of people, which is a better way than most of making sure that the limited spectrum we have isn’t wasted, and as a corollary provide a market dynamic for free-to-air television so that it doesn’t need to be subsidised by the government.

As far as the latter goes, though, we have an alternative to free-to-air tv these days: cable tv. Since it can limit its benefits to subscribers, there’s no need for ads from a business perspective, so the only reason to keep them (in the long term, given competition, or at least the threat or potential of competition, between cable providers) is if subscribers prefer ads to a higher cost. That’s not impossible: ads are often entertaining, and in some cases they’re the best way of finding out about useful services. You’d expect more ads to decrease the price of subscriptions (because people don’t value it as much and pay less; because the company has less need of subscribers to fund the business; and because advertisers want a larger audience), and there’s certainly a limit since the free-subscription / lots-of-ads model is a more effective business model for free-to-air television than cable television (since consumers don’t have to have decoder boxes and fancy cabling). Which should give you enough of a market dynamic to judge whether ads provide a useful service for their cost to viewers, or whether they’re just a good way of brainwashing people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t want to.

It’s interesting then to see then what’s happened on cable TV in Australia. There are no ads in the middle of movies, so they’re just as they are when you see them in theatres. Compared to Friday night movies on free-to-air tv which can add half an hour or more to the movie’s length in ads this is an utter blessing. There are ads and behind-the-scenes things and such between movies, but that’s about it. On the cartoon channel, there’s a break at 15 minutes, and another at about 20 minutes into a half hour cartoon (well, that’s the way the Powerpuff Girls works anyway). The 15 minute break is usually between episodes; the 20 minute break is usually in the middle of the episode. There seems to be a similar dynamic on Fox8, the channel that shows things like The Simpsons, Buffy, Roswell, and so on. In both cases a fair bit of the ad time is taken up in branding — having a fancy fade and some graphics reminding you what channel and show you’re watching. Given that Australian cable tends to buy shows from the US, it’s possible that the ads are put in there to get the timing predictable because there’s simply not enough content to fill up a half hour slot.

Television on demand (whether by Tivo or download) is likely to make the issue increasingly clear, since it makes it easy for individual viewers to decide whether to see individual ads or not, and make it easier to target ads to viewers who are interested in them; both of which make it far less likely you’ll see ads that don’t interest you, making the advertising you do see much more useful and effective. On the other side of the equation, it makes advertising much more targetted which probably allows the station to sell more ads (if you have two ads, each of which are of interest to 30% of your audience, with no overlap, you can show them both at the same time, rather than in series like you would have to now), which (given competition) decreases their cost; but if they’re still shown to as many potential customers as before (that is, the 70% who don’t see the ad weren’t going to buy it anyway), they’re still just as valuable, so you can spend 50% of the price of the ad on either improving the ad, or making your goods cheaper for the people who buy it.

I’d like to branch off slightly now. So that you don’t notice the slight logical disconnect, I’ll wave my hands thus: Media Watch gave a rather pointless tirade yesterday about product placement on reality television. It had been appropriately credited, wasn’t done misleadingly, and was interesting enough to attract two million viewers. But it was offensive to Media Watch’s sensibilities, so needed to be mocked. In any event, product placement is pretty immune to the considerations in the previous paragraph: you can’t watch the show without the ads, basically by defiinition. Similarly, when Willow uses a laptop in Buffy, you get to see a pretty glowy Apple logo fairly often. These are both more and less valuable than regular ads: more in that people will tend to see them and be more confident in what they see, less in that someone else will generally decide what they see; if the people in the Block had had problems with the tool, or hadn’t had a real use for it you’d be screwed.

Interesting. I wonder why the UQ philosophy department doesn’t have a course on “philosophy of capitalism”.

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