When I first started in the television business, a typical 30-minute comedy show was really only 25 minutes.
It was 25 minutes of scripted entertainment and five minutes of commercials, which seemed like a pretty good deal at the time, if you were part of the viewing audience.
You had a little commercial message at the top of the show, some network promotional announcements, then the first half of a story - what we called grandly, like Shakespeare might have, "Act One". Then there would be some advertisements that were unrelated to the content of the show itself, then back for "Act Two". Finally, a few commercials to cushion the transition between programmes.
Like everything else these days, it's pretty much the same as it was then. Except worse.
Now, a 30-minute show is about 20 minutes of scripted story and 10 minutes of commercials, and those are tucked in all over the place - a lot of shows now have three acts, not two. This doesn't make the storytelling any better but does allow more opportunities to sell the viewer complicated new cars, mobile telephones and snacks.
But as basic economics has taught us, whenever you increase the supply of something - in this case, ads for energy drinks - you decrease the value of them, so television networks (and their paymasters, the advertisers) are always looking for new ways to capture the "mindshare" of the audience.Or, more accurately, they want to capture the eyeballs of the audience. They want your eyeballs, not your mindshare, because mindshare means your mind is thinking, and that's not what advertisers want you to be doing.
They want their messages to go directly into your eyeballs, right into the part of your brain that sees a lot of fit, attractive, happy young people eating piles of fast food and accepts that you will be like themif you too begin to eat piles of fast food.
Money is tight all over, so you can't really blame television networks for increasing their ad space. Unfortunately for them, technology has given the viewer more and more clever ways to zap through the commercials, making them less effective.That means the networks have to add more ad slots, inspiring new ways to ignore them, and resulting in what we've got now, which is television advertisers chasing viewers the way Wile E Coyote chased the Road Runner. More ads, more zapping, more ads, more zapping.
The zapping always wins.
What advertisers have resorted to, I'm sure you've noticed, is something called "integrated advertising", which is really just a new fancy way of saying what we used to call "product placement". An advertiser pays a network and a studio to have characters interact with a brand within the show(within the already dwindling 20 minutes of story).
When I started as a television writer, the studio and network demanded that wesign an oath swearing not to do this - they called it "plug-ola", and what they were worried about was writers sneaking in product placements for secret payoffs.
Now that they've figured out a way to direct those payoffs to the studios and networks, they don't call it "plug-ola" anymore. They call it "integrated advertising". And they make us do it.
It's sort of a fact of life, really, if you're in the television business.Everyone does it - the economics of the industry dictate it, frankly. The trick is to figure out a way to integrate a brand message into the story or dialogue without ...
Excuse me. I just need a sip of this delicious Diet Coke. There. So perfect.
... without it seeming forced and fake. Without taking the viewer out of the story. Without turning a good story about characters who the audience identifies with into nothing more than a ...
Just a moment. Just took another sip of this delicious Diet Coke. Now, that's real refreshment.
…nothing more than a shameless plug for a product that no one really needs. The trick is to do it with grace and art. So as not to disturb the viewer's mindshare and activate their zapping technology.
You can't see it, but the beads of condensation on this can of Diet Coke are really attractive.
It's not impossible, of course. But it takes a certain amount of style to keep the story moving. But in the new reality of television advertising - and, who knows? probably every other communication medium there is, including newspapers - the only way to keep the profits flowing is to hide advertisements all over the place and hope no one notices.
By the way, have you seen my new BlackBerry? It's really terrific.