Ad-Free TV, or a world without windows
Posted by therebelprince on April 2, 2012
Thought of the day: is life better or worse without television commercials?
We live in an era where the commercial is becoming redundant, if not to the casual making-dinner-and-chasing-the-children viewers (who are assumedly the audience for Two and a Half Men and its ilk), then at least for semi-serious TV viewers. Increasingly, people are TiVo-ing their programs; if you wait ten minutes, you can watch the episode ad-free! Alternatively, there are a host of downloading options – legal or otherwise – allowing people in other countries to enjoy programming the same day it airs in its homeland. (There are, of course, numerous ways for networks to circumvent this: Australian networks have begun showing popular American shows in the same week as their U.S. broadcast to avoid losing viewers, for instance. Beyond this, there’s the rise of product placement – or “vertical integration”, which I assumed was just a quote from 30 Rock but is probably a real term.)
Increasingly, I’ve begun to realise that I literally never view television commercials. Most material that I view is older (my current repertoire includes The Dick Van Dyke Show and Carnivale), and new TV is watched via TiVo, DVD, or download. The only sport I watch is baseball on cable, and I’m an internet news kinda guy. Yet, while I was happy to be without ads, I’ve now begun to worry that I’m missing out on a fair chunk of pop culture, not to mention a very different atmosphere when watching new TV.
They’re really two different complaints. First up: the feeling of watching TV in a bubble. When I was a teenager, I was addicted to spoilers. If there were sides (TV casting sheets) out for The West Wing or plot summaries leaked for 24, I was all over it. It could be just as enjoyable to watch a show as a media observer, knowing the outcome but still interested in how the series reaches it, as to view it blindfolded. That still happens to me sometimes (Wikipedia spoiled some major deaths on The Wire; I’ve read the Game of Thrones books; a certain Justified cast member has been cast in a new series), but I tend to live spoiler-free. I also tend to live ad-free. After viewing a new 30 Rock or Damages, I race over to The A.V. Club (like most TV lovers and reviewers) for their insightful thoughts. Often, the reviewer or a commenter will note how many things were ruined – or at least heavily implied – by the promos. It’s common practice to deride network “promo monkeys” for giving away so much of the plot; indeed, I can still recall the despair after a 24 character’s life hung in the balance, only to see them up and about in the promo moments later. When was the last time I suffered through that?
There’s more to it than suffering, though. In a way, there’s a feeling of a shared community with the show and its makers that comes from promos and media releases. Community cast members tweet about upcoming cameos; fan conventions discuss the latest self-referential episode of Supernatural. Media interaction has allowed us to have a very different relationship with television as a whole. Ronald D. Moore would famously post online commentaries after each episode of Battlestar Galactica aired, and he wouldn’t hesitate to admit moments where the series had faltered. The Nanny had a delightfully self-aware will-they-or-won’t-they? relationship in later years, openly assuring the fans that everything would work out, rather than ever tossing serious obstacles like Friends. For some shows, it’s necessary publicity: Community‘s cast and crew have teased details about most of the remaining episodes of season three, and I’ll happily share those if they help the series get picked up for another year. Loyal fans can relish this opportunity to be part of an “inner circle” (even if all that’s required to join is internet access). It’s not uncommon to see online fans discussing cast and crew using their first names, and referring to various drafts of the same plot.
It’s not always sweetness and light, though. I’m perpetually frustrated by the BBC’s desire to trumpet every Doctor Who development months – if not years – in advance. From David Tennant’s departure to the casting of new companions, from the return of old enemies to “surprise” developments, it’s almost impossible for a Who fan to go into an episode completely unaware. I don’t understand why the series needs to drum up quite so much episode-specific publicity, and for the most part it sticks in my craw (I can’t believe that I already know which episode from the end of this year will farewell two of the characters). Another side-effect – in my opinion – is that it allows the writers and producers to get swept up in the hype too. Sure, in Doctor Who‘s case, Russell T. Davies was always going to make Tennant’s last episode camper than Christmas, but other shows fall victim to their own publicity. Both Lost and Battlestar Galactica broke my heart with their final episodes, with writers afterward defending their unusual decisions with statements that not all the questions they’d posed were meant to be answered. I had no inherent issues with the fact that, say, we never learned the truth about Starbuck. Originally, it had only been the promo monkeys asking the question, “Who are you?” Yet, in the final episodes – presumably urged on by the network’s increasingly questioning commercials – the writers threw in so many questions about her identity that it felt decidedly unfair and poorly structured for the series to end things with the route of “you decide for yourself, audience”. It’s one thing to refuse to tie everything up in a sickly little bow: I never understood people who needed to know what happened to those Russians on The Sopranos for instance. Shows like Friends end with the inherent suggestion that everything interesting happened during the series’ run; their lives are effectively complete as the finale goes to air. It’s another thing entirely to let your series be propelled by questions that delight the advertising department but which you never intend to answer. That’s not being deep and philosophical; that’s being a cocktease. In spite of my loathing for the BBC’s policies, though, it must be said that the discussion on Who forums is livelier than anywhere else because there’s so much room for people to count their chick… I mean, healthily speculate on future events.
[Edited to add: One thought that occurred to me after writing this was that releasing so much information may be a way of networks controlling the conversation. John Wells was known to leak summaries and scenes from ER to drum up interest, and other shows such as Weeds have had, shall we say, fortuitous leaks early in their lifetimes. Nothing will completely stop trolls, but I wouldn’t be surprised if BBC’s research suggests it’s better for them to announce big plot developments – both to beat the inevitable leaks, and to perhaps stop moderate fans from prying too hard for things they haven’t been told?]
Still, it’s only recently that I’ve released how rare my experience is. When I turn on a new episode of Parks and Recreation, for instance, I have genuinely no idea who the guest stars will be, which characters will be the centre of attention, or anything else whatsoever. For the most part, that’s delightful; if it’s possible for you to do the same, try it! On the other hand, I feel like a bit of a loser when a cheeky cameo or devastating moment catches me by surprise, and then I find my Twitter feed full of people for whom it was already a fait accompli. Suddenly, I’m engaging with the program as a mere viewer. They’ve been living with this knowledge for weeks, like that stage manager who’s a little bit too excited about the play that s/he’s working on, but doesn’t get to share in the glory. I don’t want to become one of those folk, tweeting “we knew this months ago” to those in shock, or trying to cruelly deprive Game of Thrones newbies of the many surprises that lay in store. But I want to know everything, dammit!
The other aspect is: commercials as pop culture. On this, I’m less upset. I only see TV commercials on a rare weekend at my parents’ house, and they always convince me that my American/European friends are correct: Australia is a commercial wasteland. We’re the kind of country that gets viscerally excited when a genuinely funny or big-budget commercial airs, sharing the news in the street almost as proof that we’ve achieved something other countries could do in their sleep.
Still, it would be nice on occasion to be able to share the joke with workmates or friends or customers. And sometimes commercials can play a role in pop culture, too: the twilight of oh so many careers has been spent as the spokesperson for increasingly less high-profile companies. What am I missing out on?
In closing, I’m not sure whether my commercial-free existence is a good or a bad thing. I delight in the genuine surprise of watching my favourite series without knowing a single twist or turn (outside of Doctor Who, where I feel like the BBC would send a personal rep to tell me each episode’s plot in advance, if they could find me). I’m also not sorry to miss out on cut-price commercials for discount fashion stores or erectile dysfunction medication. Yet I begin to fear that I’m in my own little world, like Dorothy in the cyclone, waving at those guys having fun in a small boat (which, now that I think about it, is one bizarre image). The advance knowledge of a sitcom pop culture reference may not seem as important as genocide in Uganda. The latest attempts at promoting beer might not rank as high as the 2012 Presidential election. But there’s a conversation being had: in life and on Twitter. Which will triumph: surprise alone or jaded certainty, but with friends?
My other late night rants can be found here.