Popular culture changes over time, but I don’t think TV shows are any better or worse than they used to be. You know what’s REALLY worse than it used to be? Brent McKee does:
In the 1960s an hour long show had 51 minutes of actual content and 9 minutes of advertising. Today the same hour long show has 42 minutes of content and 18 minutes of advertising – in other words more than a quarter of the show’s nominal running time is given over to advertising.
No wonder watching TV is more irritating than ever before. I think this is the real reason for the popularity of home video. Watching TV without the repeated mental abuse of advertising is so much better that a good chunk of TV fans are willing to pay good money for the privilege.
Programmers know that people don’t turn on the TV hoping to relax with a few hundred doses of electronic hucksterism in an evening, so they try to slightly reduce the impact of long commercial breaks (Wait a second, which show were we watching again?) by making them shorter but more frequent. The standard hour-long show now has six segments instead of four. They’re hoping that you’ll tolerate a three minute commercial break when a four-and-a-half minute break might make you turn off the show and go looking for something to read.
All this fine programming calculation is having an effect on the programs themselves. Once a show comes back from commercials, you’ll have only about seven minutes before the next spot break starts — hardly enough for a show to build up any dramatic momentum. If you ever watched a show and thought it was good but wondered why watching it left you vaguely dissatisfied and irritated, that’s probably the reason.
Right here would be a good time for a reminder about the essential nature of commercial television. The business model is not selling programming to viewers; it’s selling viewers to advertisers. The viewer is not the customer; the viewer is the inventory. That’s why, among the flashy sensational exposés that overrun the TV schedule, you’ll never see an exposé of advertising.