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Along with death, taxes, and Red Line delays, we’ve grudgingly come to endure commercials as a fair trade for the freedoms and pleasures of life here in the good old U S of A. But are ads really inescapable? As the entrenched mass media desperately fight to keep us bound and enthralled with edgy themes and dazzling production, the very same technology empowers us with the means to avoid commercials without devaluing content. As frustrated audiences increasingly crave liberation from the relentless tyranny of aggressive advertising and pervasive promotion, the three traditional media are responding to the challenge in ways that signal their future evolution and survival. The most senior and least sullied medium has taken the most sudden plunge into an ad-drenched future. Coming attraction trailers have been an integral part of the movie-going experience since the silent era, but lately they’re being smothered by a rising tide of commercial clutter. In the forefront of this invidious innovation is Regal’s “The 2wenty,” whose cutesy name describes in minutes the expanse of ads and promos that precede not just the feature but the standard stretch of up to a half-dozen trailers. Worse, as an added affront, they’re not even on film, but video! Among local venues, only a precious few independents, including the Avalon and AFI, have resisted the temptation to torture their patrons with an avalanche of ads. Scattered reports from fellow Womble Carlyle movie buffs suggest that most chains at least begin the ordeal while their audience settles in, but others await the announced show time and fade the lights to demand rapt attention. That, in turn, launches a troubling domino effect. No longer presented to a fresh audience that can respond to subtlety, trailers now have to compete for attention after the commercial blitz by becoming ever more intense, their frantic sales pitches straining to outdo each other in escalating volume, pace, and editing. After up to a half-hour of this sensory bombardment, the audience is so emotionally drained that the movie itself inevitably is a letdown � a lyrical opening becomes dead space rather than an invitation to ponder and even a chase that typically launches an action thriller seems dull. The experience the artists intended is utterly spoiled. The first rumblings of dissent can be gleaned from the Web site ( www.captiveaudience.org) of the CMPAA � the Captive Motion Picture Audience of America � whose advocacy ranges from the bold (a boycott of participating advertisers) to the practical (a printable seat reservation sign that explains: “This patron is avoiding cinema advertising and will return when the feature begins”). But even if most audiences seem more bemused than incensed so far, the lack of any reaction from the creative community is baffling. The same proud and sensitive directors who storm out of screenings for imprecise focus, insist upon the final cut, fight distribution of reduced-smut copies, and prohibit altering aspect ratios for TV all seem to shrug their proverbial shoulders at what is debatably an equally severe desecration of their art. But while exhibitors may gloat over their ability to assault hostage audiences with “revenue enhancements” (and whine about how they have to run ads to make ends meet), they tend to forget that patrons now have an increasingly appealing option. Indeed, the cream of their audience is retreating to home theaters where, ironically, the grandeur, class, and intimate atmosphere of cinema can be reclaimed from the sacrilege inflicted by supposedly premier venues. Those consumers with the most to spend on entertainment are turning away from the box office to the movies’ younger � and commercial-free � video and DVD rivals, from which they’re unlikely ever to return. Once upon a time, we were a nation of couch potatoes blissfully glued to the tube, contentedly settled in for the evening to absorb whatever our favorite network offered, with only a rare break for snacks or the call of nature. It was an advertiser’s dream. Indeed, the cherished “Golden Age” of television was amply tarnished not only with standard discrete commercials, but also with newscasts named after sponsors, incessant host-selling, and guests touting the virtues of their supposedly favorite brand of cancer sticks. Technology soon shook our loyalty. First, independents and cable tempted us away from the “Big Three” with new TV channels. Next, remote controls empowered us to conveniently switch among all the newly available programs. Then VCRs shattered the immutability of time, not only allowing personalized scheduling but also zipping through an entire commercial break in seconds, so that “60 Minutes” became barely 35. Multiple information streams, computer integration, design miniaturization, and vast storage capacity all promise an even bolder future expansion of choices, heightened convenience, and fragmentation of formerly mass audiences. We each seem destined to become our own program director. The long-term implications of all these tools are profound, although validation is simple � just consider how kids use media. Theirs is a push-button generation whose attention span has shrunk to the time-scale of a synapse. Why watch an ad when another program is a split-second away? And even for those of us who still tend to “stay tuned,” a recent study found that barely one in six pays attention to TV commercials. Clearly, our attitudes have shifted so radically that the vast majority of viewers have come to use TV as an occasional distraction rather than a complete entertainment package. The solution for TV is already clear � a shift away from traditional 30- and 60-second spots back to the wonderful world of product placement. Harking back to TV’s nativity, over the last decade we’ve seen embedded ads expand from the relatively discreet (the “Seinfeld” cereal stash, questions on “Jeopardy”) to the obvious (sports stadiums adorned with ad banners, Oprah giving away a whole dealer’s inventory of Pontiacs) to the downright shameless (“Apprentice” teams flacking brand-name products, “American Idol” judges constantly quaffing from giant red Coke cups). But where will it end? The prospects for hijacking creativity are truly frightening. Will TV characters soon be adorned with more logos than an Indy 500 auto? Will scripting become a mere exercise in connecting the dots between anchor points demanded by sponsors? Just picture the show of the future � our hero sips his Pepsi(r) in his Chevy(r) on the way to McDonalds(r), where his Merrill Lynch(r) broker glances up from Newsweek(r), checks her Timex(r), applies some Maybelline(r), and hums the latest Apple(r) Ipod(r) download from I-Tunes(r). Even if our eyes are repulsed, will at least our ears remain absorbed? Until now, radio ratings have been based on the fiction of the Average Quarter Hour, by which an entire 15-minute segment is credited once a listener tunes in for five. Thus, a station that plays 50 minutes of nonstop music appears to have solid, continuous ratings, even if its audience bails once the 10-minute block of nonstop nonmusic begins. And bail they do! Studies have documented that the audience drop-off rate during a set of commercials is precipitous, with barely half the listeners left after the second minute (and of those, it’s safe to assume that few pay any meaningful notice). The industry needs only to look in the nearest mirror to assign the blame for this. Having promoted itself as a prime music medium, radio trained its listeners to regard it as a free jukebox. But, now, its core listeners no longer need broadcasting for aural wallpaper, as their dependency has been broken by the evolution of portable electronic players � cassettes to CDs to hard-drives. Even aside from the lure of old-fashioned button-pushing, why listen to an entire block of commercials when you can download and program solid music to your own taste? Where does that leave radio advertisers? Pining for the good old days. And for sponsors, those days were mighty good. Remember top-40 stations � you’d hear one song or, at the very most, two songs in a row, and a mere one or two ads before returning to the music. And chances were the credibility of those ads was enhanced by a local disc jockey who showed up at community functions, personalized his show to events in your area, and talked about people you knew. When he spoke, you listened � and bought. Recently, Clear Channel, the nation’s largest broadcast owner, has begun to address the problem. Late last year, it launched a “Less Is More” initiative to reduce the length and number of spots in each commercial break. Cynics immediately saw the ploy as the time-honored predatory tactic of taking a short-term hit that competitors couldn’t afford to match. Yet it’s a move in a necessary direction. Through bland corporate playlists and satellite-fed zombie-voiced “talent,” Clear Channel pioneered the alienation and defection of the young listeners who hold the key to radio’s future. Now, it’s finally heeded audience behavioral research to realize that shorter, more frequent breaks discourage tune-out. Advertisers, too, understand the issue, as they prepare to pay a premium for the first spot in each cluster. Even if motivated primarily by self-preservation, it’s a long-needed first step toward reorienting listeners to again regard radio as a package of meaningful, integrated programming rather than dispensable flotsam in a rising stream of abundant, personalized media. Technology is expensive, so one way or the other ads are here to stay, even as the escalating battle for the eyes and ears (and hearts and wallets) of consumers promises to continue. Will ads devour or coexist with the media that demand their revenue to attract mass ratings? As they say, stay tuned . . . Peter Gutmann is a partner at the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice and can be reached at [email protected].

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