The 1980s science fiction series, Max Headroom, depicted a society “twenty minutes into the future” ruled by powerful television networks locked in ruthless competition for viewer eyeballs. Concerned by the growing trend towards channel surfing, the blipvert was developed as a rapid-fire subliminal advertisement which pumped its commercial messages directly into consumers’ brains before they had a chance to change the channel.Unfortunately, the blipvert had the unanticipated side effect of causing spontaneous combustion in a certain number of overweight and chronically inactive couch potatoes. This outcome was viewed as an acceptable risk by the networks, even though it potentially decreased the number of viewers for their programs.
I could not help but think about blipverts the other day when I stumbled across the recent comments of Turner Broadcasting System CEO Jaimie Kellner, who asserted that television viewers who skipped commercials using their digital video recorders were guilty of “stealing” broadcast content. Kellner told an industry trade press reporter that “Your contract with the network when you get the show is you’re going to watch the spots.” He conceded that there may be a historic loophole allowing us to take short breaks to go to the bathroom but otherwise, we are expected to be at our post, doing our duties, watching every commercial, and presumably, though he never said it, buying every product.
Kellner’s intemperate rhetoric is, alas, characteristic of the ways that the media industry increasingly thinks about, talks about, and addresses its consumers in the post-Napster era. Napster may-and I stress, may-have been legitimately labeled piracy, but now all forms of consumerism are being criminalized with ever-decreasing degrees of credibility. Once going to the bathroom or grabbing a snack on a commercial break gets treated as a form of theft, the media conglomerates are going to be hard pressed to get consumer compliance with their expectations, making it impossible to draw legitimate lines about what is and is not appropriate use of media content.
Name-calling is the last resort of once powerful institutions that are finding themselves losing control in the face of rapid media change. Never mind that the same media giants are often the manufactures of the new media technologies we are using to skip their commercials or that some of the advertisements they want us to watch are marketing us features which allow us to skip advertisements. Never mind that we now have many more media options and we need the networks frankly far less than the networks need us.
I don’t know about you but I want to renegotiate my contract! There has been a significant increase in the number of commercials per hour since I first started watching network programming. Consequently, my workload has doubled or tripled, while my compensation-the programming-has gone down in quantity, if not in quality. One wonders whether it isn’t time for television viewers to form a union, demand that people like Kellner sit down at the negotiating table, and cut a better deal with us, if they continue to expect viewer loyalty. And given research linking extensive television viewing with obesity, perhaps we might have some way of holding the networks accountable for their workplace safety violations as well, before some of us start to spontaneously explode.
But, seriously, the networks do not and never have had contracts with consumers, compensating us for the labor we perform in watching commercials. They do, however, have contracts with advertisers, promising them a certain number of eyeballs in return for their financial support for broadcast content, and in the new media age, they are increasingly failing to make good on those agreements.