Aug. 5, 2002: Zapping Trash on TV’s Wasteland

Recently, a bunch of television critics – people who are paid to watch television and who make sportswriters look almost relevant – gathered together with network executives to discuss the current state of the television business. The big issue was not the garbage that networks serve us daily, but the fact that you and I are growing tired of all the advertising clutter on television and are finding ways to avoid it. The critics and poobahs need not worry. As bad as television commercials are, they are better than most of today’s network programs, unless you enjoy watching people eat worms on a dare, as I witnessed recently on one of the networks.

Devices are now being manufactured that will automatically zap commercials so that we can watch the few minutes of programming the networks allow between ads. This development is a major trauma to television networks. Most of their revenue comes from sponsors, and they don’t want us to omit the commercials. Otherwise, advertisers won’t underwrite important cultural fare, like people eating worms on a dare.

One television mogul, Jamie Kellner, who is president of Turner Broadcasting, a division of AOL/Time Warner/Ted Turner/Looney Tunes, predicted that if we keep zapping commercials then we are going to have to pay $250 a year more just to have the privilege of watching a bunch of air-headed, tattooed blond girls get pregnant. Perish the thought.

“Not so fast,” says Leslie Moonves, president of CBS. Moonves insists the commercial-zapping machines haven’t taken over the world yet and, besides, he has an alternative to commercials – product placement. Instead of enduring Screaming Dan, the New War Man prattling at you every fifteen minutes or so to buy his gas-guzzling SUVs, you might see Morley Safe pick up a bar of Ivory soap during “60 Minutes” and slyly set it in camera range in a way that will make you want to run out and buy a case or two. But product placement does have some drawbacks. Advertisers might object to associating with certain shows. Moonves cites his own network’s blood-and-guts show, “CSI,” as an example. “How do you do an autopsy and have a diet Coke next to it?” Are network presidents heavy thinkers or what?

Personally, I think the television industry is way behind the learning curve on this issue. I have been zapping commercials for years and I don’t require a complicated technological gizmo. All I need is my handy remote control with a mute button. I zap ads that feature rap music (which is most of them) or any that have cats in them, and I zap all commercials that show some white guy as a befuddled jerk being set straight by his superior-acting wife and smirked at by his kids. Advertisers do this to white guys because if they made blacks or Asians or women look that stupid, they’d receive a corporate butt-kicking from all the special-interest groups. White guys have no special-interest groups to defend them, unless you count the Republican Party. But Republicans are too busy fighting with each other these days to have the time to take up for white guys.

I zap political ads because they insult even my limited intelligence, especially the one featuring Zell Miller talking about Max Cleland’s leadership in the Senate. I assume Miller had his fingers crossed when he made that commercial because surely he doesn’t mean it.

I not only zap commercials, but I also zap people I don’t like. It has been years since Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, Phil Donahue, Jerry Falwell, Yassar Arafat, talent-challenged Alex Baldwin or anyone associated with Atlanta’s Concerned Black Clergy has uttered a word on the television sets in my home, and as long as my remote control holds out, they never will.

Although it fries the hide of a couple of journalism professors I know, I am glad I write a newspaper column. I don’t have to pause in the middle of a great thought to accommodate Screaming Dan, the New Car Man. The mute button is rendered powerless against me. I don’t have to hold up a bar of Ivory soap while you read this. Best of all, I don’t have to eat worms on a dare or associate with anyone who does.