I hate Osama Bin Laden from the core of my heart, and for entirely personal reasons. Yeah, he brought about radical change in the mindsets of Muslim youth setting the Middle Eastern dogmatic ideology in direct collision course with the Western way of life, but my revulsion for him has little to do with wars, cultures and mind controls. I loathe him for what he did to the real estate of my television frame. Right until Sep. 11, 2001, the frame was full size with a little transparent corporate branding at some corner of the screen, letting my attention entirely undivided and focussed on the proceedings on the raster. Content was the king and all the distractions had to make do with their special slots interlaced at every 15 min interval for about 5 minutes, and the world was fine with the arrangement. And innovators (or, the impatients) who couldn't even put up with the minor break away invented devices where one could watch the program almost uninterrupted, albeit recorded, leap-frogging over the annoying ad-breaks. Lawsuits followed immediately from major advertising companies accusing the makers of these digital video recorders that they were denying their customers of their right to watch the ads in their entirety so as to make a conscious and a calculated decision based on them. Enough to say, common sense prevailed over crocodile tears and the courts threw out with the ridiculous cases and sided with the customers. And once the customer got used to the DVR, a whole new world, sans subliminal, intrusive and even obstructionist advertising, opened up for him. He made choices and bought products based on his preferences and his liking than on some catchy jingle on some picture perfect model that refused to be dislodged from the brain, thanks to the incessant exposure to the widespread advertising. Consequently ad-revenues fell for the broadcasters, and obscure, but better products rose to prominence through sheer word of the mouth, and the consumer benefited from this, in every which way possible. Seething in anger, the advertisers and the broadcasters bided their time, as help arrived from a completely unexpected direction. As the date turned to Sep. 11, 2001, the world was never the same again, including the realm of television broadcasting.

It is quite ironic that Osama Bin Laden, whose tirade, among other things, was against the wanton nature and the excessiveness of the Western culture, inadvertently came to the aid of down-and-out promoters of consumerist culture and leased them a fresh breath of life. It all started quite innocuously, (just like any other social malady that started out small and quickly consumed everything in its sight) with a little scroll bar at the bottom of the screen on Sep. 11, 2001 providing the desperate populace more information about the tragedy unfolding on the screen. Since the incident of that magnitude spread out its tentacles of impact on several spheres - social, economic, medical, welfare, national security and many such - and since the prime time anchors were entrusted the unenviable job of breaking the bad news that piled up with each passing hour with the right amount of compassion and professionalism, there just wasn't enough time to push through all the news that was pouring in through the anchor in the traditional fashion. And some news producer got the brain wave of inventing the round the clock TV scroll at the bottom of the screen that could provide more information about the tragedy as and when it arrived and the public lapped it up with eager arms and thus was born the phenomenon. That was 10 years ago. I was flipping through the channels and stopped at the entertainment channel, which, of course, had its scrolling bar at the bottom of the screen "breaking" news about the happenings in the tinsel town with all the seriousness as a regular news channel. See what you have done, Bin Laden? You helped promote the same licentiousness and profligacy of human culture that reportedly drove you into caves and pick up the arms. Happy now?

To think this dumping of data by staking a permanent place on the prime real estate of TV is all Western ingenuity and innovation, is to once again undermine the contributions of the Eastern thinkers who made great strides in this direction, before the Westerners were even familiar with this in-your-face advertising. In the mid-80s Robert Zemeckis, the Hollywood director, made the now famous "Who framed Roger Rabbit" combining for the first time on the silver screen animation elements with live action characters. And it didn't take long for a no-frills inventor from Gurgaon to take the idea one step forward and devise what was probably for the first time the amalgamation of content and advertising on the television screens. This idea was tested out, not on the widely watched (for lack of choice) only TV channel, Doordarshan, but on an even more popular platform that had just as enough reach across far flung areas of the country as Doordarshan - Video Cassettes. Conventional wisdom states that broadcasters need ad-revenue to support their programming, particularly when it is distributed for free over the air, like DD. But video cassette advertising flouted every norm, logic and convention of advertising by exploiting a glaring loop hole in the trade - captive audience. (which loosely means, if the content is captivating enough, the audience will put up with ANYTHING). Mind you, this was in the late 80s, and the propounder of this theory was no Ivy-league business school graduate, but just some low level marketing employee working for a mildly reputed video cassette distributor. And here is the idea - instead of separating the content and the ads, how about overlaying the ads across the bottom portion of the screen OVER THE CONTENT! And before long, millions of cassettes distributed around the country had ads dancing across the screen, blocking out at least 25-30% of the content, for the entire length of the movies. And even more unbelievable is the fact, that the consumer was in fact paying for this (torturous) movie viewing experience, where only action that was relegated about the waist height translated well, and anything under got drowned in the sea of ads. It had gotten so bad that watching the movie in a theater, with all the expenses, travel and trouble, seemed a better option than this low cost freak theater. Sanity prevailed after about a decade, when competition in that cut throat industry eventually started to cater to quality and decency rendering on screen ads a slow and a painful death. And if I had thought then that I saw the last of this kind of blatant insult and assault on the intelligence, sensibilities and helplessness of the hapless public, I didn't have to wait long.

Truth be told, even with all their faults, Western advertisers (and the product makers they promote) are at least image sensitive/conscious, worried about the mood swings of even a small minority of their customers. An offending ad is immediately apologized for, an offending statement is immediately retracted, and an offender, quickly shown the door out. They respond to the customer complaints, campaigns, drives, and have their ears close to the battlegrounds as to notice even the slightest tremors with the mode or message of the ad and take corrective action before the whole thing snowballed into a major controversy. Move a few time zones away to the subcontinental airspace, where publicity doesn't need to be prefixed with a "good" or "bad", as long as people notice it. As an example, switch to any "news" channel. The whole idea of scrolling information has been taken to ugly heights and blown out to grotesque proportions. Not content with just a single band of useless information, a second band propped right on top of it, provides even more worthless drivel. And some savvy TV marketing executives started selling this second band as ad space. After all how much news can happen all the time that warrants 2 separate scrolling bands. And this improvisation didn't just stop with the news. Cricket broadcasts, which garners the largest captive audience trumping even the news, have been reduced advertising playgrounds. Just like peace is termed as respite between two wars, a cricket over is reduced to playtime between two ad slots. With plenty of overlaying space for ads across the vast cricket field making them almost indistinguishable for the real painted ads on the ground, with exploding ads which blast out of the ground and completely occupy the screen, the L-shape technique which minimizes the action to a tiny square filling up the rest of the space with ads, all this, IN ADDITION to the regular ads slots that duly interrupt the ending of regulation over, here is the re-emergence of the audience-annoyance experience from its decrepit crypt from the 80s, in a totally new, but equally ugly garb. How much more bombardment, with utter contempt to the ethics and disregard to the standard practices, can the captive audience take? In a country that routinely brushes aside gripes and grievances, how does the audience make their voices heard to the tone deaf advertisers and the greedy broadcasters, who have their heads buried deep in ad-revenue, that these practices are unethical and insulting to the sanities and sensibilities of the common viewer?

I had to start somewhere. I made a list of all the brands that support these ad blasts and made it a point to find and buy only their rival brands (Run, instead of Rin, Varma, instead of Nirma, Roost, instead of Boost and many such. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of store brand alternatives). Granted, my pittance doesn't go a long way into shaking the foundations of these ad revenue models, and my revolt is more symbolic than anything else, but I cannot, in my conscience, allow this gross violation of human right (to ad-free enjoyment, or even less-ad experience) to continue unabated. The next time I see statements like illegal internet feeds eating into broadcasting revenues, or even piracy eating away the industries, I am not going going to be as worked up as before, because in this current culture, subversion has become the only mode of dissent. With the cynical part of my mind sincerely wishing for a global financial meltdown that leaves no nation untouched, where people don't have enough to buy and therefore manufacturers (and advertisers) cannot peddle their wares, I look forward to the bleak future where ad companies are out of business and broadcasters return to the roots of catering to the simple pleasures of their audiences with content alone. I might be out of a job, I might have no money, but with no ads on my TV, I'll at least have a little peace of mind, and that counts for a lot.

Someone said, I'd rather be rich and unhappy than poor and happy. Think again.

1 comment:

విజయవర్ధన్ said...

ETV used to show its programs without scroll bars. But, recently, they are also following the other channels. The bottom 20% space is taken by the ads of upcoming programs (not of any branded products). I hate it but we have no alternative. Worse part: the DTH providers too occupy some real estate of TV screen and we pay for their services! Hope things will get better in future.