HeSaidSheSaid

He Said/She Said: Is on-screen advertising killing TV?

Join Greg and Diane every Monday as we debate what’s on our minds. This week: on-screen advertising is becoming more and more prevalent. Is it harshing your TV buzz?

He said:

On-screen advertising is ruining primetime viewing for me. There, I said it, and I know I’m not alone.

Remember when network bugs—the logos for CTV, CBC, Fox and others—first started infiltrating the lower right corner of our television screens? Viewers, including me, were outraged that their TV real estate was being invaded by those little buggers. The networks then faded out the bugs so they were still there, but less invasive and annoying. I recently noticed that often those logos no longer grey out and stay brightly-lit in the corner of the screen, as if I had no clue that I tuned to A&E for Bate’s Motel and The Returned.

But the network bugs pale in comparison to the advertising that has, increasingly often, taken up the entire lower third of the TV screen. Ads for CraveTV constantly interrupt my viewing of MasterChef Canada. CSI: Cyber teasers jump up during Motive on Sunday nights. Listen, I get that networks have to embed ads in their programs to counter the fact Canadians are using their PVRs to zip through commercial breaks, but I have a serious issue when the ad directly affects my viewing. There have been countless times when the name of a reality show competitor has been hidden by an on-screen ad. Not a huge deal, I admit. Reality shows remind us of competitors all the time through interviews and editing.

It was what happened to X Company last Wednesday night that got me really steamed. An ad popped up during an important scene between two German officers. The pair were discussing their next move of attack and the dialogue was all performed in German. Problem was, an ad completely obscured the subtitles from view so anyone who didn’t understand German was completely in the dark as to what was going on. To their credit, X Company‘s twitter account swiftly posted this apology and transcript of the dialogue.

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 9.50.05 AM

The gaffe should never have happened in the first place. There should be a dialogue between the programming and advertising department where they figure out where an on-screen ad can be placed so that it causes the least amount of damage to a TV show’s storyline. I can only imagine what Denis McGrath—who wrote that episode of X Company—thought when the scene was hidden by advertising. It’s an insult to Denis and any other producer, writer, actor, actress or crew member on a TV program that has seen their work partially hidden by advertising. Television is art, and the art is being obscured and besmirched.

Would you accept it if Coke or Nabisco slapped a sticker over part of a Tom Thomson work at an art gallery? You would not. You would be outraged. Leave my TV alone!

She said:

When I finally installed an over-the-air antenna last month after living on a diet of Netflix, screeners, iTunes and website and app viewing for several years, I had two thoughts: a) yay me for finally getting it done and b) oh my god it’s all advertising.

Online advertising has its own annoyances, as does awkward product placement within the shows themselves, but nothing beats covering the action on-screen. Some channels used to have motion graphics in that lower third to make sure your eye diverts from the story you’re watching. Do they still do that? I don’t know because the annoying advertising is making me use my newfound over-the-air channels for emergencies only, like, um, watching The Voice or the Oscars live.

That said, let me play devil’s advocate: something has to pay for the content in an era when more people use PVRs and fast forward through commercials, when more channels divide the mass audience, and when more households have cut the cord while online advertising hasn’t kept pace with what a network can earn on broadcast.

I can watch X Company on the CBC website or app and be annoyed by repetitive but less frequent commercials and a clunky viewing experience, or I can wait until it might appear on Netflix, or I can buy the season from iTunes for $21 (um, no), or I can suffer with the kind of advertising that appears over the air, but something has to pay for the shows we love.

However, to be clear: there is absolutely no excuse for onscreen advertising to obscure important action or, worse, subtitles.  I don’t know whether to blame CBC or the producers or both, though. There have always been “safe areas” when producing shows — the protected 4:3 area during the early days of the widescreen TV transition,  title-safe areas, action-safe areas. So why is there not an advertising-safe area or subtitle-safe area known to both X Company producers and CBC alike?

One failure is simply a mistake. We can forgive and forget. But intrusive advertising is an ongoing nuisance we likely have to live with unless networks can find a better way to finance shows in today’s television landscape.

Greg David
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Greg David

Prior to becoming a television critic and partner at TV, Eh?, Greg David was a critic for TV Guide Canada, the country's most trusted source for TV news. He has interviewed television actors, actresses and behind-the-scenes folks from countless programs. Survivor winners, Donald Trump, Jerry Bruckheimer ... he has interviewed (literally) hundreds of TV people over the course of his career. He is a past member of the Television Critics Association.
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7 thoughts on “He Said/She Said: Is on-screen advertising killing TV?”

  1. Another factor is that Canadian broadcasters probably don’t want to or can under current #CRTC rules squeeze more actual ads into a show like they do in the United States, where a once Half Hour show like Let’s Make A Deal gets bloated to a hour so more ads can be fitted in and another reason is that TV is trying to ape the computer screen website experience, especially for the Web generation that is more use to ad screen clutter than someone much “older”

  2. I tried to watch X Company last night on my PVR but it turns out I accidentally recorded it from the described video channel so I tried to go online to the CBC website but as per usual the videos won’t work for me. I don’t really even notice the ads anymore. From about November to February I had a 5-inch wide solid black line in the middle of my tv screen which was much more distracting.

  3. I have a similar opinion. I think of them as “necessary nuisances.” You forgot when a show does a small cliffhanger just before a commercial to keep you watching and then the resolution of said cliffhanger is blocked by the ad.

    Or when a channel is trying to hype up a premiere of a new season for a show so they put a countdown clock on the bottom right of your screen during the show prior to the premiere? In the final season of Lost in the episode Sun briefly couldn’t speak she wrote her words down on paper, which was blocked by the countdown for the premiere of ‘V”. That was infuriating.

  4. Denis McGrath is very, very, very tired.

    Necessary evil. I can’t get too upset about it.
    I hope and expect CBC in the future will implement some kind of control so that when lower-thirds appear in programs where there’s subtitles or vital info, that they don’t conflict. I think that’s a reasonable thing for audiences to expect.
    But it’s also a good thing we live in an age where that stuff can be insta-corrected on the Net. Perfect, no. But part of the problem with everyscreen, everywhere, anytime, is that it gets a lot harder to figure out how to pay the bills by selling soap in all those contexts.

  5. What’s frustrating about things like this (and the X Company scene was particularly egregious) is really all a broadcaster is doing is, y’know, broadcasting programming. That’s kind of their thing. So shouldn’t they try to get it right? Especially at a time when they are complaining about losing viewers to alternate mediums?
    .
    I’m not a person who complains about commercials — I understand that’s how they pay bills. But use them appropriately. Unfortunately, just as most viewers assume the commercials are there to pay for the programs, I suspect too many broadcasters simply see the programs as a way to deliver the commercials. And the more contempt they demonstrate for the programs (and the audience) the more they’re going to lose viewers.
    .
    On a side note…is it just me or are subtitles getting really tiny? There are more and more shows using subtitled sequences, yet they seem to be getting harder and harder to read. Maybe the filmmakers are assuming everyone has big screen TVs, or that we’re all ignoring that ol ‘ “eight feet from the screen” rule we were taught as kids.

    1. My OTHER pet peeve about the subtitles is how many of them contain spelling mistakes. Several international shows on Netflix feature incorrect spelling, as did the first episode of Dig on Showcase.

      1. :) That could be a topic for the next TV, Eh? poll! With more series having subtitled scenes, and most of us probably thinking that’s good (making shows more cosmopolitan and multicultural) making subtitles easy to read is something filmmakers need to remember.
        .
        Actually one of my biggest subtitle issues– is when there aren’t any! I’ve come upon DVDs of English-Canadian TV series with no French subtitles as an option and French-Canadian series with no English. Nothing says a producer has contempt for Canadian unity more than when they clearly couldn’t care less if their series was seen by the other “solitude.”

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