Over the Christmas weekend, our college-age daughter got out a vintage VHS tape we had recorded in her childhood of “I Love Lucy” episodes on Nick at Nite.
If any classic sitcom stands the time test, “I Love Lucy” -- which, believe it or not, is even older than I am -- does it as well as any vintage comedy ever aired. If anything, the primitive black-and-white escapades of Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Bill Frawley and Vivian Vance show how pallid, unimaginative and depressingly unfunny most TV comedy is -- and (I want to be fair, not just fogeyish) probably always has been. We tend to forget how much really rotten stuff was on the air in TV’s supposed Golden Age. For every Lucy, Andy or Dick Van Dyke there were hordes of “My Mother the Car.”
One thing memory doesn’t betray you about is commercial breaks. And the most striking thing about that old “Lucy” tape is how short they are: One Nick house ad, one paid commercial -- one -- and then back to the show. That was the routine, and we’ve got a basket of old tapes to prove it.
Maybe Nick at Nite programming from 15 and 20 years ago isn’t even typical of the early ’90s. Surely even then, networks and cable stations were stringing together ads in longer and longer stretches. But when the old 5-minute pause on the recording remote stopped being long enough, and DVDs of vintage shows included scenes we’d never seen because local stations had cut them out for extra commercials, things were clearly getting out of hand.
It’s not your imagination, or deceptive nostalgia: Advertising breaks in commercial television now are absurdly, obscenely long. What’s the actual time of an “hour” drama now -- 40 minutes? 45, maybe 48 at most? We recently sat and counted something like 13 separate advertising and promotional spots during one break not between shows, but in the middle of one. It’s nuts, and it’s infuriating, and it’s insulting.
It’s also, I think, ultimately self-defeating for advertisers. I’m pretty sure ours is just one among a growing number of households where people rarely if ever watch live TV anymore; they (we) record it, and watch it later so we can fast-forward through the interminable commercial breaks. “TiVo time” has become a generic term millions of TV viewers understand instantly and instinctively.
Just a thought: When it takes as long now to fast-forward through commercial breaks as the breaks themselves used to take, isn’t something seriously out of whack?
If anybody right about now is picking up a pen or a phone or a laptop to accuse me of being “anti-business,” stop it just stop it. That worn-out reaction to this kind of cultural criticism is knee-jerk nonsense, and I’m tired of hearing it. We’re talking about something that tens of millions of hard-working, honest, free-enterprise-loving capitalist Americans absolutely loathe.
I make my modest living in a business paid for by advertisers, and thank God for them. But there are an awful lot of Americans who resent the relentless encroachment of commercial and corporate culture into every cranny of our consciousness, and that doesn’t make us socialists. It just doesn’t.
I don’t like baseball parks named for banks, I don’t like college bowl games named for insurance and telecom companies, and I don’t like -- and if I can help it, absolutely won’t watch -- interminable strings of loud ambulance chaser and car dealer ads and promos for “Bridezillas” or some other brain-cell-killing video bilge, as the price of watching a 24-minute rerun of “Frasier.”
Even as you’re reading this, the broadcast and advertising industries are undoubtedly hard at work on some technology that will make zipping through commercial breaks mechanically impossible. Meanwhile, they’ve already found a solution -- run ads during the show, over what you’re trying to watch.
Somebody hand me that basket of old VHS tapes.