Friday, May 18, 2007

Put up a parking lot.

In his 2004 book, “A Short History of Progress,” Ronald Wright wagged his finger at mankind for failing to learn from its mistakes. It’s a compelling read, relying heavily on the lessons of extinct civilizations to make its case. Among these, maybe the most jaw-dropping is the story of Easter Island, a barren rock in the South Pacific that once teemed with arboreal life until it was deforested by its resident humans, utterly. He evoked the moment when that very last tree came down, wondering at how whoever was wielding the axe must have been so blinded by their immediate agenda that they couldn’t notice that there wasn’t any more shade.

It was the image of this imbecile, axe in hand, proudly surveying his handiwork, which came to mind as I read about yesterday’s CRTC ruling in favour of increasing commercial content in television’s prime time.

For non-Canadians and anybody else with other things on their minds besides the demise of commercial television, here’s the headline: The CRTC, Canada’s broadcast regulator, has approved a request by the country’s beleaguered television broadcasters to increase the number of minutes of commercials it can show during prime time to 14 per hour, then to 15 for all time periods a year from now. And then, finally, in September, 2008, there will be no limit at all. The networks can sell as much advertising time as they like. Or can.

Well, I suppose they’re turning cartwheels around the foosball tables at the nation’s ad agencies today. More ads to sell means more ads to make. First, the Bessie Awards and McHappy Day fell on the same date this year, and now this. Good times.

But when the cool kids are done dancing around this latest fallen log, they might want to spare a thought for what this really means to our little branding island.

For one thing, let’s remember that television networks weren’t in trouble because they couldn’t sell enough ads. They were in trouble because they couldn’t scrape together enough audiences. In the U.S., network television just had what Associated Press called “it’s worst spring in recent memory,” with 2.5 million fewer viewers of its programming than in the previous year, and it’s only an acceleration of a trend that’s been around since the dawn of cable. Audience shares of top rated programming have been halving every twenty years since the 50s. Today, here in Canada, a program with an audience share of as little as 6% can make it to the top ten. First, cable sliced audiences more and more thinly, and then the internet stole them away altogether. You might be making more ads for the next little while, kids, but you’ll be making them for a lot fewer people to watch. And eventually that math is going to catch up with you: Your clients and their brands will have a harder and harder time justifying the cost of producing television advertising (especially if it just reaches the same 17 trailer park-dwelling recluses, over and over and over again). Being excited about this is like a beef farmer being excited about McDonald’s lowering the price of its hamburgers.

And then there’s this pesky moral thing. Advertising was always a value exchange. Ads funded the creation of wonderful things to watch. More ads is going to lead to less wonderfulness, changing the value equation and slowly but surely reducing its appeal until it has none at all. And that’s going to be a huge pity. You see, while I’m skeptical of all the self-congratulatory ceremony around advertising and its rather parochial view of branding, I am still a believer. Used respectfully, television commercials are among the very few remaining ways you can stimulate the interest of a passive consumer. You know, make them want something. The internet is lovely if you know what you’re looking for, but the best way of making a consumer want to look in the first place is probably still going to be some kind of ad. But bombard people with them, hold their programming hostage for another few minutes an hour, and eventually advertising will get a bad name. No, seriously.

No, this is not good news. Not good news at all. Canada’s broadcasters are joining the ranks of marketing’s damned, the people who’d rather sell more of less. Keep it up, keep running more and more ads, more and more cheaply, to smaller and smaller audiences, and before you know it, you’ll have invented YouTube.

Except we already have one of those.

Don’t it always seem to go…