It is nothing new to say that every Brit who goes to America is
shocked by the number and frequency of ads on American television. As
an American man who, six years ago, married an English woman — we spend
half of each year in each country — I finally decided that I needed
to sit down with a stopwatch and calibrate the exact difference.
I always watch the 'prime time' evening news in America, a half hour
show that the big three (ABC, CBS, NBC) air simultaneously (in my part
of the country), at 6.30pm. Here is the breakdown for one day on one
network, though it is typical for every day on all three networks.
The news began with a list of 'tonight's top stories'. That took a
little less than one minute. Then they aired eleven minutes and twenty
seconds worth of News. Then the massacre begins: [make these numbers
into a list] Ads 2.30, News 3.18, Ads 2.45, News 2.36, Ads 3.00, News
2.26, Ads 1.30. In the last 18 minutes there are almost ten minutes
worth of ads, eight minutes and 20 seconds of news.
For long I sensed the above was true (lots of news followed by lots of
ads) because as soon as the ads began, I would leave whatever channel
I was watching and try to find news on one of the other channels.
Invariably, whatever channel I surfed to was also in the midst of ads.
My research revealed that all three news networks begin with roughly
ten minutes worth of news, and the final 20 minutes are 50% news,
As I did more and more research, I found the ten-minute suck-em-in
pattern to be true of almost every half hour show I watched. The last
twenty minutes of every half hour show is often more ads than show.
Or, for every minute of 'program' there is a corresponding minute of
ads, and as was revealed in the network news show, they kill you by
drips & drabs: two minutes 36 seconds of program, 3.00 of ads, 2.26 of
show, 2.45 of ads, and so on.
The worst case is two-hour-long movies. Often they begin with twenty
minutes of movie, and then, in the last half hour, there is one minute
of movie, two minutes of ads, one minute of movie, three minutes of
ads. My British wife swore to never-ever again watch a movie on
network TV after she encountered this bizarre, yet common phenomenon.
She did not even finish the one movie she began watching. As she said,
'she couldn't be bothered'.
So what is the situation in England on the three channels (3-5) that
are regulated and do allow ads? Theoretically, 'publicity broadcast on
behalf of someone other than the licensee' is limited to 12
minutes per hour. I say theoretically, because this does not include
'Intervals of more than five minutes between programs'. And this does
not include 'information to viewers about, or in connection with,
programs' on the same channel.
Basically, I found that in every clock hour American television had 19
minutes of commercials; in England there were 14 minutes of
commercials. But the situation is far more complicated than that. In
the 'Rules on the Amount and Distribution of Advertising', Section
5.4, the stated rule is 'a period of at least 20 minutes should
normally elapse between each successive internal break'. In my
experience (stop-watch in hand) this is not followed strictly, but the
spirit of this law -- lots of minutes of show before you dare bombard
the viewer with a commercial interruption -- is what differentiates
British television from American television.
An American television show transplanted to England best illustrates
this difference in approach. Desperate Housewives is aired on Channel
4 and unfortunately, as is the case on American TV, there were 19
minutes of commercials, 41 minutes of program -- but the breakdown was
The first 12 to 13 minutes consist of roughly four minutes of ads,
five minutes of program, followed by four minutes of ads. In England
we then have 13 minutes of program, four minutes of ads, thirteen
minutes of program, four minutes of ads, ten minutes of program, four
minutes of ads. When you watch Desperate Housewives in England you can
see places where, for just a second or two, the screen is completely
black: that is where, in America, there would be ads.
The difference in the number of minutes of commercials - 12 vs. 19 or
14 vs. 19 - does not give you a real feel for 'the difference'. The
difference is that your programs are allowed to run uninterrupted for
15 to 25 minutes. In America, except for the first ten
'suck-in-the-viewer' minutes, interruptions are constant,
overwhelming. In many cases, in most cases, there is more
'interruption' than program.
American TV drives us crazy; there is no program flow. It is all
bitty, constantly interrupted by inane, overloud, commercials. As one
man said, you can't present a serious idea when every three minutes
your program is interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits selling toilet