Archive for TiVo

A Word from our Sponsors

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2011 by Tom Steward

‘Why are we sitting here watching commercials?’ asks C, G housemate, and it’s a fair old point. In the UK it’s pretty obvious when adverts are about to come up, and programmers gently ease viewers in to the transition. On UStelevision, commercials abruptly cut into programmes, taking out lines and ends of scenes like a poltergeist script editor. Commercials even interrupt themselves, making it impossible to concentrate on the most fleeting of promotional programming, and the commercials don’t stop when the programme proper begins either. Fictions feature promotional considerations where brand products are used somewhere in the narrative, often very wittily, as in 30 Rock which continually satirizes NBC’s prostitution by consumer goods conglomerates.

Non-fiction does a lot of straight-to-camera advertising, as shows suddenly stop mid-item and become an infomercial for weight-loss pills, again making it impossible to separate programme and commercial. US TV commercials are more like web pop-ups or computer viruses, something that intrudes on and pervades your media experience when you least want it to. Consequently, whole media industries and online communities have emerged to allow viewers to speed through commercials (video on demand, cheat sites for skipping commercials on TiVos).

TiVo Ad Skips

Websites teach you how to skip ads on TiVo

Though eminently frustrating, commercials have historically been a huge part of the development of American television and shouldn’t be lambasted outright. In the 1950s US TV producers and writers had to fit content around roughly three interludes per hour for sponsor messages and it was this that helped TV develop as a unique art form different from theatre or cinema. For instance, the dramatic arc of TV anthology plays had to accommodate breaks in the flow and therefore TV drama became characterized by sharp cliffhanger rises in suspense or action every 10 or so minutes. They are also an unignorable part of the ritual of watching TV. I remember an episode of teen girl comedy Blossom where  father Ted goes to pee saying ‘and now a word from our sponsors’. This excerpt shows us in the pithiest (or pissiest) way possible that commercials are ways of TV serving people’s biological needs for food, drink and bodily functions. And we love them as much as we do our own gluttonies, addictions and excretions. I have a couple of favourites at the moment. The first is a cycle of commercials for Chantix, a give-up smoking pharmaceutical.

It used to be the case that US drug commercials would deliver the small-print about side-effects and defects in an indecipherably fast voiceover in the last second or so of the commercial, which has been brilliantly parodied (like virtually all TV absurdities) by The Simpsons’ distressingly accurate mock-ups of network advertising. It felt like a corporate conspiracy to cover-up the serious health risks associated with particular products and this is probably why such information is now given in a more leisurely manner, taking up the majority of the commercial and repeated almost verbatim at the end. Unfortunately, this only makes the drugs sound more life-threatening as an exhaustive list of possible ailments like kidney failure, heart attacks, respiratory problems, skin blemishes (and my personal favourite ‘unusual dreams’) is rolled out over soft piano on-hold music, a sickeningly inappropriate and seemingly endless concoction of words and sounds which suggests the pain will never end after taking Chantix. Plus the commercials are usually predicated on an irresolvable tautology that sounds like a Zen saying designed to separate mind from body such as: ‘Do you want to give up smoking without giving up smoking?’. Yes, Chantix is apparently not just a wonder-drug but a porthole into an alternative universe of Marxist dialectic or, if that’s too posh a reference for you, the Bizarro World. The second is a set of commercials for Poise, a pad designed to counter bladder control problems in women featuring Whoopi Goldberg.

Commercials are so often about hiding embarrassing problems or anxieties with advertisers and companies preying on insecurities to sell products vaunted as paper-over-the-crack solutions (no pun intended). But this commercial tries to comfort people who suffer from these ailments, reassuring them that it’s completely normal (1 in 3 women have had it at some time) and, importantly, that it can be funny, with Whoopi’s pleasingly infantile ‘spritzer’ noises. There’s something cathartic about the ‘fart is funny’ silliness of this commercial that I imagine would be a tremendous release for those suffering from this ailment. Its bluntness also says something about the aggressive cajoling of US TV commercials and how it can be used in a more positive way.

How to Cool Water Digitally

Posted in American TV (General) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2011 by Tom Steward

There’s an uncorrected myth in virtually everything I read, hear or see about television to the effect that no-one is watching programmes when they’re on. To many observers, the ability of those with access to and knowhow of new technology to watch TV online, as downloads and DVDs, on demand and recorded on to digital storage boxes equates to the abandonment of viewing shows when they appear in the schedule. I’ve always had my suspicions about this, and so do many of my academic colleagues. Just because people can make it happen doesn’t mean they’d necessarily want to, especially when you get vastly inferior images or deeply uncomfortable viewing conditions as a result, as I’ve always found with my ipod when craning my neck to look at a screen where everyone looks like Gary Coleman. The USA was a huge adopter of many of these new platforms for watching TV, to the point where digital recorders and video-on-demand services became commonplace. Devices such as the TiVo were marketed to Americans as a stirring liberation from the chains imposed on viewers (and other TV artists) by network executives and schedulers, as this commercial from the early 2000s demonstrates:

But the fact is digital recording almost didn’t make it in the USA. It took a good few years for sales and uptake to get off the ground, by which time the market was rapidly losing confidence in the technology and considering wiping the slate and starting again. So it’s never just been a case of the ‘the technology’s there-people will automatically leave scheduled TV behind’, even in the countries where digital platforms for TV have been the most successful. From the beginnings of TV in America to at least the 1990s, networks targeted viewers through event television and programmes that would gather communal audiences, hence terms like ‘watercooler programme’ so called because co-workers would supposedly congregate around tubes of clear liquid in the office the following day to excitedly debate the latest plot developments of certain riveting shows. Although many Americans now regularly use digital recording to watch television freely, we also shouldn’t assume that they’re necessarily using it against the traditional model of watching TV in scheduled slots or in ways that are unsociable.


Seinfeld helped coin the term 'watercooler show'

And so I found when I first went to G’s ‘Glee Night’, where friends and housemates gathered together in her living room to watch TV with snacks and drinks and Glee as the main event. Now what was fascinating about this was that we were coming together on the night the show was broadcast to watch it even though it was entirely possible to do this any night, as the show was being recorded digitally on the set-top box. This gave a certain flexibility as to when in the night the show could actually be watched, allowing for latecomers, ongoing conversations, food being cooked etc. But the point is that watching it in a group on the scheduled evening was still important. There was a commitment to preserving the shared experience and first-run viewing that came with the ‘watercooler’ programme. Rather than using digital recording for timeshifting or creating a customised schedule, as many commentators have claimed we use it for (presumably applying only to those deluded enough to think they actually are high-ranking network executives), here it was being used to bring programmes from different nights the same sense of a communal event, as if it were the ‘watercooler’ show of the evening.

Watching TV as a family

It was just like this...minus the wallpaper


So ‘Glee Night’ was also ‘Dancing with the Stars Night’, ‘Millionaire Matchmaker Night’, ‘Modern Family Night’. At least here, digital recording didn’t eradicate the excitement of watching TV as it happens in a large group; it made every show like that. The technology was making TV more thrilling, but not because we were enacting fantasies of the cold-blooded murders of network executives, but because we could do more with the old ways of watching TV. This made it even more sociable as you could stop and replay it if we were all talking and it gave more programmes exclusive treatment, as if trying to recreate the moment it was first broadcast. It struck me that watching TV with Americans wasn’t really that different than it ever was. After all, a televisual quirk of the US time zones means that programmes air at different times of day depending where you are in the country. So shifting viewing an hour or two to make way for a pizza is not exactly the end of television.

%d bloggers like this: