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TV’s two-minute warning

Editorial by Bruce Wark

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Wasn't it Marshall McLuhan who called commercials the best thing on TV? Obviously, he never saw that hideous chocolate cake ad showing Marie Antoinette being carted to the guillotine. She thrusts out a gloved hand and snatches a slice from among the throng of jeering peasants lining her route. As she climbs the gory steps to the blade, the doomed French queen shouts, "Yes, let us eat cake!" thrusting the gooey wedge into her elegant gob. The commercial ends with Antoinette's bloodied head bouncing into the basket, a broad smile fixed on her cake-besmeared lips. "Royal Chocolate Gateau," the deep-voiced announcer thunders. "Cake fit to die for."

OK, maybe the commercial was hilarious at first, but how many gazillion times do I have to see it? Marie Antoinette probably croaks 15 times every night. And starting this fall, she'll likely face the blade even more often, as Canadian TV broadcasters start selling 14 minutes of commercials every hour in prime time instead of just 12. The CRTC is increasing the commercial limit to bring Canadian TV in line with US stations. The American shows that fill the evening viewing hours here are built around 14 minutes of commercials per hour. Unfortunately for us viewers, the story doesn't end there. In two years' time, the CRTC is proposing to eliminate commercial restrictions altogether, allowing TV outfits to show as many ads in prime time as they like.

Some experts warn that if the TV networks try to squeeze in too many commercials, viewers will vote with their zappers, fleeing to other channels. It's the only power we have left now that the CRTC is abandoning its responsibility to regulate the public airwaves for our benefit and not just for Canada's profitable TV industry. In 2005, TV outfits received just over $3 billion in ad revenues. That year profit margins increased substantially while the poor viewers coughed up three times more money to receive programs than the TV industry spent to buy or produce them. Yes, viewers spent $4 billion on cable and satellite fees plus about $2 billion more on TV equipment. That $6 billion outlay far outstripped the $1.9 billion in total expenses for the TV industry. Yet the CRTC is obviously more concerned about the welfare of the corporate fat cats who hold TV licences than the beleaguered viewers it's supposed to serve.

The CRTC coddles those fat cats at every turn. For example, if they choose to broadcast an American show or sports event at the same time as it's being shown on a US channel, the CRTC requires cable companies to transmit the Canadian feed on the US channel. That means the fat cats can guarantee the maximum audience to their advertisers whose commercials will be shown automatically on two channels instead of just one. And because ad rates are based on the size of the audience, the Canadian stations can charge a lot more for the commercial time. Nice, eh? But here's the kicker. Advertising is considered a business expense, so advertisers can deduct the money they spend from their taxes. That makes it cheaper for them to bombard us with commercials, while we pay higher taxes to make up for the money they're saving. Not only do we have to sit through those endless, inane ads, but we have to help pay for them too! Our only protection used to be that stations could show only 12 minutes of ads in prime time hours. But now, thanks to the CRTC, that protection is disappearing.

I often think that if Canadians knew the full extent of the royal ripoffs they endure from our broadcasting system, they'd storm the nearest CRTC office (the one here is right by the Holiday Inn in Dartmouth) shouting, "Enough cake already. Off with their bloody heads!" But perhaps I've been watching too many Marie Antoinette, Royal Chocolate Gateau ads.

Are you ready to storm the CRTC and reclaim the public airwaves? Join the revolution by email: brucew@thecoast.ca.

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