It is nothing new to say that every Brit who goes to America is shocked by the number and frequency of ads on American television. As an American man who six years ago married an English woman -- we spend half of each year in each country -- I finally decided that I needed to sit down with a stop watch & calibrate the exact difference.
I always watch the “prime time” evening news in America, a half hour show that the big three (ABC, CBS, NBC) air simultaneously (in my part of the country), at 6:30 p.m. Here is the breakdown for Nov 6, 2006, and though I am only giving you one day on one network, it is typical of every day on all three networks.
The news begins with a list of “tonight’s top stories.“ That took a little less than one minute. Then they aired eleven minutes and twenty seconds worth of News. Then the massacre begins: Ads 2:30, News 3:18, Ads 2:45, News 2:36, Ads 3:00, News 2:26, Ads 1:30. In the last 18 minutes there are almost ten minutes worth of ads, eight minutes and twenty seconds of news.
For long I sensed the above was true (lots of news followed by lots of ads) because as soon as the ads began, I would leave whatever channel I was watching & try to find news on one of the other channels. Invariably, whatever channel I surfed to was also in the midst of ads. My research revealed that all three news networks begin with roughly ten minutes worth of news, and the final twenty minutes are 50% news, 50% ads.
As I did more & more research, I found the ten-minute-suck-em-in pattern to be true of almost every half hour show I watched. The last twenty minutes of every half hour show is often more ads than show. Or, for every minute of “program” there is a corresponding minute of ads, and as was revealed in the network news show, they kill you by drips & drabs: two minutes and thirty six seconds of program, three minutes of ads, two minutes twenty six show, two minutes forty five ads.
The worst case is two-hour-long movies. Often they begin with twenty minutes of movie, and then, in the last half hour, there is one minute of movie, two minutes of ads, one minute of movie, three minutes of ads. My British wife swore to never-ever again watch a movie on network TV after she encountered this bizarre, yet common phenomenon. She did not even finish the one movie she began watching. As she said, “she couldn’t be bothered.”
So what is the situation in England on the three channels (3-5) that are regulated and do allow ads? Theoretically, “publicity broadcast on behalf of someone other than the licensee” is limited to twelve minutes per hour. I say theoretically because this does not include “Intervals of more than five minutes between programs.” And this does not include “information to viewers about or in connection with programs” on the same channel.
Basically, I found that in every clock hour American television had 19 minutes of commercials, in England there were 14 minutes of commercials. But the situation is far more complicated than that. In the “Rules on the Amount and Distribution of advertising,” Section 5.4, the stated rule is “a period of at least 20 minutes should normally elapse between each successive internal break.” In my experience (stop-watch in hand) this is not followed strictly, but the spirit of this law -- lots of minutes of show before you dare bombard the viewer with a commercial interruption -- is what differentiates British television from American television.
An American television show transplanted to England best illustrates this difference in approach. Desperate Housewives is aired on channel four and unfortunately, as is the case on American TV, there were 19 minutes of commercials, 41 minutes of program -- but the breakdown was very different.
The first 12 to 13 minutes consist of roughly four minutes of ads, five minutes of program, followed by four minutes of ads. In England we then have 13 minutes of program, four minutes of ads, thirteen minutes of program, four minutes of ads, ten minutes of program, four minutes of ads. When you watch Desperate Housewives in England you can see places where, for just a second or two, the screen is completely black: that is where, in America, there would be ads.
The difference in the number of minutes of commercials, 12 vs. 19 or 14 vs. 19, does not give you a real feel for “the difference.” The difference is that your programs are allowed to run for 15 to 25 minutes, uninterrupted. In America, except for the first ten “suck-in-the-viewer” minutes, interruptions are constant, overwhelming. In many cases, in most cases, there is more “interruption” than program.
American TV drives us crazy; there is no program flow. It is all bitty, constantly interrupted by inane, over-loud, commercials. As one man said, you can’t present a serious idea when every three minutes your program is interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits selling toilet tissues.