Ofcom has said that it is thinking about letting television stations broadcast more adverts. Ofcom are considering allowing nine minutes of advertising per hour. Currently an average of seven minutes per hour is allowed, although a maximum of twelve minutes in any one clock hour is permitted.
I am no fan of television adverts, but I have to say that I feel sorry for broadcasters in this respect. The comments on the article from Times Online are mostly negative, perhaps encapsulated by this one by Harry Taylor.
Surely not! Is there not too much advertising already, mostly purile, repetitive and often misleading?…
With all its faults give me the BBC.
Of course, if Times Online were to write an article about a proposed increase in the License Fee, everybody would be saying the opposite. But, as they say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Commercial broadcasters are expected to pull excellent programmes out of thin air with the minimum of advertisements. And as we’ve seen this year, another major form of revenue for broadcasters — premium-rate phone-lines — has become a bit of a taboo. People must accept that adverts are a necessary evil — but a balance must be struck.
But for all of their (supposedly) good intentions, a lot of Ofcom’s advertising regulations work against the viewer. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than Formula 1. F1 has the dubious honour of being the only sport event to be broadcast in the UK where adverts are showing during the action. And football fans complain about adverts during half time! Think about how F1 fans must feel!
Once again, it has to be accepted that adverts in F1 are a necessary evil. F1 is almost unique in that a Grand Prix can last anything from 90 minutes to two hours with no break in the action. (The only other sports I can think of that go on for so long with no breaks are long-distance running and cycling, which are usually not shown live by a commercial broadcaster.) Seemingly, this is just too long for ITV to go without showing an advert. This means that they can’t bunch them up at either side of the action as they do with football.
But does it have to be this way? Many F1 fans would be willing to see some form of compromise, but the solutions put forward are currently prohibited by Ofcom (PDF). The main culprit is pesky article 3.1:
Television advertising must be readily recognisable as such and kept quite separate from other parts of the programme service. Breaks containing advertising spots of any kind, including teleshopping spots, must be identified in vision and/or sound, for example station identifications going in and out of breaks.
This means that any way of ITV simultaneously showing both adverts and programming is prohibited. A split-screen solution is often proposed. One part of the screen contains the race action, perhaps as an inset in an advert. But it’s not allowed. Sky Sports News can do it because it is permitted as long as only text is displayed. But even a scrolling text service in this style would not be allowed on ITV, because the rules are stricter for ITV, Channel 4 and Channel Five.
Other reasonable compromises are also prohibited. For instance, ITV would not be allowed to broadcast audio advertisements while race pictures take up the screen. ITV could not even overlay text adverts on top of the race pictures.
All of this is not allowed by Ofcom, probably for noble reasons. But most F1 fans would love to have any one of these solutions over the current situation — where ITV interrupt the race completely and broadcast commercial breaks that last minutes.
Also working against F1 fans is the requirement that ITV must display an ident going in and out of commercial breaks. This prolongs the commerical break for yet more crucial seconds.
Indeed, if you are an F1 fan you might be tempted to suspect that Ofcom’s regulations were specifically designed to get in the way of F1 the most. Because, despite the constant references to how commercials should only appear at “natural breaks” of the programming, one paragraph — which was included specifically with ITV’s F1 coverage in mind — proves that this is all just for show.
In live coverage of long continuous events breaks may be taken at points where the focus of coverage shifts from one point to another of the event for example after a resume of the current placings in a race and before refocusing on a particular section of the race.
So even though there are no “natural breaks” in an F1 race, ITV may show adverts just by giving a run-down of the positions in the race before going to a break, and saying what lap the drivers are on when the adverts are finished.
I also reckon that the rules surrounding the amount and length of commercial breaks also works against F1 viewers. It also works against viewers of football, films, or any other long programme.
Now, my memory of what I am about to say is sketchy. It must have been almost a decade ago and I was still rather young. But I am sure that while I was on holiday in France I watched a commercial break that lasted several minutes. It felt like about fifteen, but it might have been ten minutes. I don’t know. But what I do know is that I would never have seen a commercial break last that long in the UK.
But these breaks were not included willy-nilly in the middle of programmes. The obscenely long commercial break was, in fact, placed out of harm’s way at the end of a football match (or a film, I can’t remember). It was there to make up for the lack of adverts during the programme.* So, while at first a commercial break lasting ten minutes may seem obscenely long, would not most of us prefer this kind of solution? One where the adverts were tucked away where we don’t have to see them?
As such, I would support a liberalisation — or at least a fundamental re-think — of advertising regulations. This is not only for the reasons I have outlined above, but for another reason which is the drive of my liberal view on most things.
Insiders at the regulator are keen to emphasise that they want to avoid coming close to US advert levels, which they believe would be unpalatable to British audiences.
If they were so unpalatable, broadcasters would of course not want to do this for fear of making viewers switch off. No regulations necessary — broadcasters will find the “correct” level of advertising naturally.
I suspect that a few years down the line we won’t have to worry about this at all. Due to the increasing prevalence of PVRs, soon enough we will all be able to record the programmes then fast-forward through the adverts. (I usually already do this when I watch Grands Prix because I am not in a position to watch the races live.)
Advertisers will have to find more and more creative ways to reach viewers. Product placement might be harder to regulate. And soon enough we probably won’t always even realise when we are watching adverts.
* I might actually be completely wrong about this, and the long commercial break may have been caused by some kind of technical mishap or something else. I did not know because I could not speak French, but the scenario I described seems most likely to me.