Advertising and the purpose of television

tvWatching your favourite television programme uninterrupted by perfume and soap advertisements is the dream of any viewer. In France, that dream has just become a reality for the 4 state-owned channels: all the advertising is banished to the private channels.

In the days of the all pervasive ostensible logos and defence of corporate interests, to what do the French viewers owe this honour of logo-free programmes? “If we keep commercials we are subjecting ourselves to the tyranny of audience ratings. And this always means the worst programming dumbed down to lowest levels,” Sarkozy argued last February. “(…) public television must be different. It must lift people up and excite their curiosity, conscience and intelligence.” President Sarkozy’s rhetoric sounds appealing enough, offering us better television, uninterrupted. Wow. At the risk of sounding cynical, is there a catch?

The End of French Television Advertising: Under President Sarkozy’s new media reforms, French prime time television has become free of all commercial breaks. Currently the programming in the evening from 8pm to 6am is uninterrupted, and by 2011 all 4 national channels will be completely advert-free.  The financial shortfall will be covered through taxation on private television channel advertising (1.5 to 3%) and internet and mobile phone operators (0.9% of revenue). ( Top: Humax television envisioned by Tej Chauhan. Below: President Sarkozy, courtesy AFP.)

The reform does indeed have its detractors. Some suggest that the move merely shifts more advertising revenue to TF1, France’s most popular private channel owned by Martin Bouygues, a friend of Sarkozy. Others see the reform as a way for the state to exert more power over the stations, compromising their independence. The former is a popular view, as testified by TF1’s share price shooting up. As for the loss of independence, that will only partly be the case. The state will have more control (as the reform includes the right to choose the director of France Televisions), but state television “should” not be steering against the interests of the country as it is. Independence, means that the channels can decide for themselves what that means, rather than having their mantra imposed on them by the state. Whether they will be more or less independent after reform is very hard to judge at this stage. What can be judged, is the friendship between Martin Bouygues (of the leading TF1) and the president,  which, in itself, is more worrying to television independence. TF1 is a private company and should certainly not be taking orders from the Elysée.

As the independence of the media is fundamentally important to the functioning of a democracy, it fuels the debate on whether or not to enact the media reform. In this case that it is certainly debatable. But there is something else which clouds our judgement: advertising. Does advertising actually influence programming? Yes, it does. A commercial TV channel is a profit seeking enterprise. It tries to attract as many viewers as possible to maximise its advertisement revenue. This tends to put game shows, American series and such on the air (as TF1 does). Such a channel is not necessarily all fluff around the adverts, as there is a point to making specialist shows as well (targeting a specific group of people) if there is a market for them. Teen music shows or gardening specials attract certain groups of people advertisers may want to target, as would some documentaries. It is worth noting that even with advertisements, the public channels held long philosophical debates which can only be followed by a small group of intellectuals.

sarkoThe president hopes the French public television will rival the British BBC. But why, really? It is perhaps not overly controversial to accept the superiority of the BBC over the French public channels, but what has it contributed to the UK? Or, what can it do for France? Does more quality television increase the general intellectual level of a country, the happiness or the political stability? Let us not forget that  these channels are state owned, so there must be some kind of common interest in keeping them afloat. But what? Is the president chasing an ideal of the active citizen, who, when more enlightened will not let himself be manipulated by his  elected leaders and can serve as the cornerstone of democracy? It sounds philosophically sound, so should this action be seen as an ideological reform. If this is so, does television actually contribute to the promotion of the enlightened citizen?

Television has some fundamental flaws for intellectual activity. Following any kind of argument on screen critically is near impossible, which is why “intellectual television” is an oxymoron. To be able to follow a programme, one has to let the images stream into one’s head. One has to accept each premise to be able to take in the next. Note that watching television is  a completely different experience to reading. The former is inherently passive while the latter is active. When you read a text, you can move backwards and forwards in the text as you see fit and as you consider the validity of what you are reading. The pieces have to be stuck together by the reader, encouraging the appropriation of the text, broadening his understanding. Television can never do this. But what can it do?

Television programmes can show you things you have never seen before, and otherwise might never see in real life. They can broaden your horizons. In an ideal world, you would be stimulated by something you see on television and then go outside to find out more. Television can open your mind to experiences of other people, making you more open-minded. Naturally, the programmes can also quite easily inspire fear, which can be abused for political gain. It is a tool which changes people (besides promoting obesity through inactivity). In the context of a country, television brings people together, convinces them to think alike, discussing similar issues in a similar manner. It is one of the greatest nation builders ever developed. Television promotes the use of a national language and promotes the national political outlook. Ideally, television supports the political leaders, but it has to be free to do so (or not) for democracy to work. Television is the backbone of national stability.

But surely advertising fits snugly in such a nation-friendly programme? A television station which supports national unity, promotes the national culture and (roughly) the political outlook, and at the same time encourages the population to consume more goods… how can that be a bad thing? Both in the sense that people are encouraged to discuss matters they are presented on television by the programmes, they may discuss (and buy) the goods shown. So, even if the programming is not spectacular and swamped under the perfume and soap breaks, the television will serve its purpose in the grand scheme of the nation.

There is also another, more subtle advantage to commercial television.   Advertisements help convince people they live in a free country, as it makes them feel like they have a say even at times when they might not (away from elections). Advertisements suggest choice (whether or not there is one), generating the illusion of being in control over both their lives and the society around them. It is perceived as the counterpart to democracy, or even as the price to pay for living in a free society. Inversely, programmes without advertising are now perceived as propaganda, people assume that it must have been paid for with some interest in mind.

To sum it all up: It would be the right time to ask what public television is for and if we need it. If it is really to promote intellectual advancement, as the President suggests, we could seriously doubt its effectiveness.  If it is to be in the interest of the country, we would probably be better served keeping those breaks in there. I think the president got the reform right, with a broader taxation base to reflect the future users of television (internet, mobile phones), but bluffs on the reasons. There are two reasons which would really hold up: some better programmes, presumably, which is great for the national prestige. And secondly, well, actually not having commercial breaks (!) – but do realise, that if you are invited to a talk-show now, you will actually be expected to finish your sentence…

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