Maybe traditional television deserves to die. “Traditional” used to just mean broadcast. But I am lumping basic cable nets in here too. Television has done so much to take the joy out of television. There is no dramatic continuity, no freedom from lower third ads that remind you it is fiction you are viewing, no extended scenes where we get to explore a character through his or her reactions.
My wife and I were watching “The Devil Wears Prada” on ABC some time ago. I had not seen it before, but my wife was able to tell me what got cut out so I could understand the movie better. And we had lots of opportunities to talk. There was a 2-4 minute commercial break after every 5-8 minutes of program. Any moment that had a risk of me caring about the characters was broken up by yet another commercial break.
Watching a show on Bravo or another cable net means having a dramatic moment interrupted by a lower third promo for another show. Again, if for some reason, I get caught up in the show and start caring about characters, a lower third promo reminds me I am watching fiction on television and I should not get caught up in the characters. Bravo commercials say, “Watch what happens.” I did. I give up.
David Kelley, producer of L.A. Law to Harry’s Law, Picket Fences to Ally McBeal has not quite given up. But he is pretty annoyed. In a recent interview with Tavis Smiley he said, “When I started on “L.A. Law,” I think our shows were 48 minutes plus some, with four acts. We’re now down to 41 minutes, six acts, in a one-hour presentation, and it’s absurd. With big, loud commercials coming in every six and seven minutes it’s become incumbent upon us to be noisy, to pound, pound, pound, much more difficult to do the slower-paced, emotional stories that build over time. It’s just very, very frustrating to cut to a commercial every six, seven or eight minutes.”
Watching “Fringe” means five or six fake, contrived mini-climaxes each preceding a long commercial break. This pretty much separates the viewer from the emotional connection we have with the show. I want to love “Fringe.” The powers that be that run television make loving a show so much of a challenge.
Couldn’t the networks, both cable and broadcast, make television better by cutting back on commercials? Fewer commercials might mean less tune-out during commercial breaks. Less opportunity to sample other shows or getting caught up in Weather Channel (or is that only me that gets caught up in TWC?)
Fewer commercials might mean you can charge more per spot since perhaps the advertiser can be promised more eyeballs and less message clutter. The answer to how to make television better will never be by giving the audience more reason to eliminate emotional involvement and making it easier to watch or maybe even do something else.
If television does die, to be replaced by mobile media, it may not be because they couldn’t sell advertising. It could be because they sold too much.