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The Elephant Man - are his days numbered?

by James Graham 

Posted: 22 February 2006
Word Count: 1294

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The Elephant Man - are his days numbered?

Say there's an entertainment or sport you enjoy very much, it's your idea of a good way to pass a few hours. Let's say cricket. You go off one day to Lord's or Edgbaston and settle down to enjoy the game. Say it's a one-day match between England and Australia. England win the toss and decide to bat. Trescothick survives six balls from Glenn McGrath and makes two runs. Then something unexpected happens.

A guy in a suit moves in front of you, blocking your view. 'Had a minor accident lately?' he wants to know. 'A fall, for example? Feel you deserve compensation?' Your jaw drops. You crane this way and that to try to see past him, but he always seems to be in your line of vision.

He moves aside just in time to let you see Brett Lee bowling the first ball of his first over; he bowls Strauss for nought. Vaughan comes in and gets four more runs by the end of the over.

Two figures now stand in front of you: a miserable-looking young man who doesn't look very well, and a cardboard box with arms but no legs. The box mixes the poor guy a Lem-Sip, then climbs up to his head, mops his brow and massages his sinuses. The patient trots off smiling by the time McGrath bowls the first ball of his second over.

When that's finished, three men put three chairs down between you and the field of play, sit in them and begin shaving with electric shavers.Two of the shavers don't seem to be working, but the guy with the one that does work has his smooth cheek brushed by the even smoother cheek of the female exam invigilator.

Between the fourth and fifth overs, a man comes along with a sort of pantomime elephant in tow, and starts chuntering about car insurance while the elephant gets into a mess with flash cards.

After that, they just come back and repeat themselves. The compensation guy in the business suit comes back seven times, the shavers nine times, the animated box eleven. And the elephant doesn't forget.

At the drinks interval, all the hucksters come along together. By this time you're seething. For some reason it's the elephant man who incenses you most, and you feel like flooring him; instead, you make a remarkably restrained gesture of protest. You stand up, take him firmly by his lapels, make eye contact, and say, 'Listen. I don't want to lose the place with you. But I just want to tell you that if you come here and bother me again, I have this big golf umbrella with me in case it rains but I will use it for a purpose for which it was never intended. The same goes for the elephant. Is that clear?'

But none of this seems to register. While you're speaking, his eyes go blank. It's as if you've pressed a still button. It's as if you're there but he isn't. As soon as you let go, he picks up on his spiel and the elephant fumbles some more cards. After the next over but one, there they are again. By this time you're too close to mental exhaustion to do anything about it. Having exceeded even the patience of a saint, well before the half-way point of the match you switch off...I mean, leave the stadium.

This is how it is when you view any commercial channel. You can't watch anything through.

Maybe it's just about tolerable to have sports coverage interrupted; sport is pretty lightweight stuff anyway. But when it's something really serious and important, commercial interruption becomes grotesque. When Mike Moore in the middle of Bowling for Columbine is cut off virtually in mid-sentence so that we can be reminded for the ten thousandth time that you don't have to be posh to be privileged, it becomes offensive. Especially if Moore has just finished taking on K-Mart over firearms and ammunition sales in their supermarkets, or Lockheed Martin over their latest WMD promotion.

There's one glib answer to such complaints that needn't detain us. You can hit the Mute button. Oh yes...and do what, to pass the time? Commercial breaks were devised by Phileas B. Sod, more infamous for his Sod's Law. They are too long to pass without annoyance, but too short to be in the slightest degree useful. You have only two choices: put up with them, with or without sound, or else don't view.

If we start to talk about banning TV advertising altogether, we find ourselves in a Catch-22. All the commercial channels would close down and we would be back to BBC 1-4 and radio. What sort of astronomical licence fee or other tax would be needed to maintain even a handful of channels in addition to BBC?

Anyway, we're not only in a Catch 22, we're in Cloud Cuckoo Land. Advertising is the raison d'etre of all these channels. They're not entertainment media which happen to carry advertising; they're advertising media that happen to carry entertainment - because it's the best decoy. The Sky channels show cricket and the Best of the Two Ronnies because nobody would watch if they showed only adverts. The generators of ongoing consumerism don't want any of this to change. The system as it is now works for them. So how can we expect to have the luxury of uninterrupted viewing?

Technically, it's possible. In fact, it has been possible for nearly a decade. The magic word is Tivo - the brand name of the Personal Video Recorder, which records up to 40 hours of your personal choice of programmes on to hard disk. And it can be programmed to skip the commercials. In the US, 90% of viewers who have Tivo boxes use them to cut out the ads - suggesting quite strongly, I would think, that people don't want to be sold stuff, at least not in the middle of their entertainment. But Tivo has had difficulties since it was introduced to the UK at the end of 2000; it's too much like a VCR, but up to four times more expensive. So far, it hasn't caught on.

If the price can ever be brought down to somewhere in the range of the average VCR, the revolution might happen at last. But wait a minute. Follow through the logic of it: say by 2015, 90% of viewers have Tivo boxes. Of these, 90% use them to skip the commercials. Suddenly there's no point in advertisers turning out this stuff, because nearly everybody is busy deleting it so they can watch the test match or Alan Titchmarsh or Michael Moore not only at a time of their own choosing, but seamless from beginning to end. The marketeers pull out of television and we're left with BBC1-4 and radio.

But I can't help feeling that's a worst-case scenario, and it won't come to that. Like the atom bomb, now Tivo has been invented it can't be uninvented. Sooner or later it will be in most homes, and advertisers will have to reach into the bottomless wells of their ingenuity and discover other ways to annoy us. Maybe Pepsi's long-cherished ambition, to project its logo on to the surface of the Moon, will be revived. The makers may offer Tivos without the ad-cutting function at low, low prices, or even give them away. In that case, I'll pay for a proper one. Ever the optimist, I hope I live to enjoy everything from one-day cricket to in-depth reports on the decline and fall of the American Empire - knowing that the clever Tivo box will give me a joined-up programme every time.

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Comments by other Members

Cornelia at 15:37 on 22 February 2006  Report this post
Excellent piece. This draws the reader in with its intriguing (and funny)narrative and provokes a riposte with its premise that adverts are distracting. (From me at least, someone who thinks adverts are the best part of any TV fare, as a rule.)It's also nformative about the drawbacks of Tivo and why we don't have it here.

The funniest bit: 'The same goes for the elephant.'

I just realised why the adverts you watch are such crap ones - it's a fatal combination of daytime TV and sport! Late night films on Channel 4 might change your perspective on advert quality. Then again, we film buffs tend to pre-record and whizz through the adverts.

Looked at another way, the adverts are adding a Brechtian dimension to your viewing and the subsequent 'alienation' may well be the antidote to dangerous over-identification with the protagonists.


Account Closed at 07:28 on 25 February 2006  Report this post
Very entertaining, James! When I read the title and started reading the piece, I couldn't imagine what the Elephant Man had to do with cricket, but that made me want to read on!

In France, commercial breaks during programmes are quite reasonable - one per film for example - just the time to go to the loo. The long breaks are between programmes so that the news ends at 20h30 and the next programme, scheduled for 20h50 often doesn't start before 21h!! However, I remember watching the box in the US and barely managing to focus on the suubject of the prog before a break broke it up.


Cornelia at 12:02 on 25 February 2006  Report this post
I experienced the worst TV adverts scenario when I lived in Singapore,1990-93. There there was no warning screen beween programme and adverts, presumably because they knew you'd just go off and do something else, so whatever you were watching just segued straight into them. It got so that just as you were thinking, with a feature film, say, 'This plot doesn't make sense' some strange new character would tell you to buy something. It seemed the adverts were even specifically designed to look like ordinary programmes. After a while it made you suspicious that every change of scene was going to turn out to be some kind of sales pitch.


James Graham at 13:02 on 25 February 2006  Report this post
Thanks, Sheila and Elspeth. As with everything else, I suppose the quality of adverts varies and there are some good ones. But how many stand up to the amount of repetition they get, over such a long time? The one with Joanna Lumley ('You don't have to be posh to be privileged')seems to have been on for at least four months - when I first noticed it, the leaves were still on the trees. OK, I found it irritating the first time, but could even someone who thought it was quite a funny little comedy sketch, still see anything in it after four months?

I've watched TV in the US too. There was a survey not so long ago which found that 60% (or thereabouts) of American viewers hadn't watched any programme through in the past year. It's easy to understand why. Singapore seems slightly worse, if anything. But why am I not surprised that the French have a more sensible arrangement?


Brian Aird at 11:49 on 27 February 2006  Report this post
....taking you to the movies. Can you name the sponsor? If you can't perhaps sponsored programming doesn't work. But what do we mean by sponsored advertising? Surely not adverts embedded in the programming? If you see SONY monitors in a film set of a control room - is that always embedded/sponsored advertising? (I didn't get paid for that for example)

Let the punters make their choice, if they want ad-free channels it'll show in the take up for subscription channels - won't it?


James Graham at 18:50 on 27 February 2006  Report this post
Brian, I'm with you on letting the punters have the choice. But if they showed they didn't want advertising by not subscribing, that wouldn't get them ad-free channels. It would simply mean the channels with poor take-up would close down. I imagine if people don't subscribe to any particular channel it's because they're not interested in the content; if they do want the channel for its content, they know they have to put up with advertising because that's what largely finances the programmes.

Here's a way of really leaving the punters free to choose. I don't know how it could be done technically, but it doesn't seem too far-fetched. Instead of having commercial breaks, all promotional messages and information about products is stored, and can be called up by the viewer at any time. It would be similar to teletext - let's call it 'Shoptext'. There are no ads in the middle of programmes; every programme runs through without a break. Between programmes there are one-minute breaks for quick reminders about Shoptext, highlighting different things each time, or each day - e.g. 'Look for bargain holidays at...' or 'Thinking of moving your mortgage? Try...' Viewers would be encouraged to press the red button, or whatever, to go to Shoptext. They would find some top-page promotions (already mentioned) plus alphabetical listings. Say you needed to buy a new lawn-mower. You could find lawn-mowers in the index, see what's on offer, compare prices, and either order from home or get the address of the nearest stockist.

The one-minute break between programmes is a concession to advertisers. Ideally, I'd prefer not to have Shoptext flagged up at all, but just to have the magic button available to be pressed or not. But the advertisers wouldn't buy that; they don't want to be that inconspicuous. Even with the one-minute break, though, our viewing experience would be enhanced - and viewers would have real choice. We would be allowed to choose whether or not to look at any products - instead of having products forced on our attention every few minutes. I don't know about anyone else, but I would use Shoptext. As a matter of fact, I probably will need a new lawn-mower soon. Shoptext could help me decide which one suited me best, and I could order there and then or see if it was in stock at the local B&Q.


di2 at 20:12 on 02 March 2006  Report this post
I thought you were having a dream (nightmare)as I read through your article. The idea entertained me and kept me moving through the article. It demonstrated very well what we are experiencing everyday when we sit down to spend a few hours in front of the TV.

Luckily, I'm able to switch off when adverts come on, unless they are repeated adnausium. Well I was until we started watching our new very large LCD TV. The quality of the graphics in the adverts has me staring in wonder.

We've just purchased the DVD "Civilisation" which has many hours of uninterrupted viewing. I think DVDs are the only way to see something "through".

The information you gave about the Tivo was interesting. I wasn't familiar with that technology. Somehow though, I accept that the adverts pay for the programs, so they don't bother me tooooo much.

A good piece James. It entertained, informed and got me thinking.

Thank you.


James Graham at 18:35 on 04 March 2006  Report this post
Di2, glad you enjoyed the piece. Yes, DVDs of things that have been on TV are a good idea. As for adverts, I admit I have a low threshold and find very few of them can stand more than a couple of repeats. I'd still rather see Tivo technology catching on, so that advertisers would have to rethink the way products are presented.


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