Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Advertisements are the bane of our American life - or at least our televisual one. It seems that whenever you start getting into a TV programme, wham! here comes another set of adverts. 

The impression of constant marketing bombardment is not far from the truth. The rule of thumb is that there is an advertising break every seven minutes. But even this astonishing frequency doesn't begin to describe the omnipresence of advertising.

In Britain, a typical TV programme fills up approximately 27 minutes of every half-hour slot, the remaining three going to advertising, usually once in the middle and again at the end. By contrast, BBC America, which rebroadcasts - some would say regurgitates - "Auntie"-made TV for US consumption, has to schedule 40 minutes for each of its UK-format television programmes simply so that it can fit in the requisite advertising.

The Superbowl, the highlight of the American football calendar, a kind of cup final à l'américaine, clearly shows how much time is given over to advertising here in the US. The game itself consists of four 15-minute periods. OK, so there are lots of breaks because the players are forever being substituted on or off, but there are also deliberate pauses and time-outs built in purely to satisfy the "sponsors". As a result, although it has been estimated that there are only 11 minutes of actual play in an American football game, the Superbowl transmission (excluding pre- and post-game analyses, but including the halftime show) lasts well over three hours.

Advertising is also a huge money-spinner for the sport's governing body, the NFL, with 30-second slots (especially the coveted halftime ones) currently costing just under $3 million each. So if, as this year, you have a captive audience of 106 million representing more than two-thirds of the households in the US, why not take extra breaks for "a word from our sponsors"?

The Winter Olympics - exclusive coverage of which was bought by NBC for almost $900m - are another good if annoying example. Our evening viewing was recently interrupted so often that we found ourselves timing not only the length of "viewing time" between advertising breaks but also the length of the breaks themselves. And lo and behold, we found that there is, on average, a break every 7.5 minutes - after which you are treated to an average of 2.5 minutes of advertising.

In other words, you end up watching a minute of adverts for every three minutes of the actual programme!

But most odd of all, albeit only for non-American audiences, is something that happens during my favourite TV programme, The Daily Show
(though undoubtedly elsewhere): coming out of the third advertising break in the space of half an hour, the host says, "That's our show. We'll be back tomorrow night. Goodnight!"

Cue closing credits ... followed by more advertising.