It used to be so much simpler. If you wanted to watch a TV show you had to tune in at the time the network aired it and slog through the commercial breaks -- except when taking the occasional kitchen trip or bathroom run.
Now, we're much more in charge of how we watch TV.
The Associated Press recently reported that digital video recorders are present in an estimated 17 percent of American homes.
The AP also says that, of the people watching recorded shows after their initial broadcast, six in 10 fast-forward through the commercials. I don't think I believe them though. Six in 10? It must at least be eight in 10, right?
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As you can imagine, this doesn't sit well with advertisers, who only want to pay for commercials watched during a show's original airing.
However, the networks recently talked them into a "live plus three" plan, under which advertisers would compensate networks for commercials watched within three days of the original air date.
They would love to push it even further to "live plus seven," but the advertisers won't budge unless they can have some guarantee that viewers aren't zooming through commercials -- which they will know about since last month Nielsen Media research, the TV ratings people, began providing ratings for commercial breaks.
This whole dilemma has received a fair amount of press in the last few weeks, and after exhaustively researching the subject, I can foresee only one outcome -- the viewer is eventually going to get screwed.
The worst-case scenario is that networks physically prevent us from fast-forwarding through commercials by implementing some sort of technological barrier.
Don't smirk. ABC execs admitted this summer that they have discussed that very idea. Let's hope they understand consumer backlash would be large, loud and rather unpleasant for everyone involved.
What could happen instead is that the networks get craftier in making you pay attention to their advertisers.
Product placement is something that's already a nuisance, especially in reality shows. I remember the early years of "Survivor," when it seemed like the winner of every other challenge won toilet paper and towels from Target.
But it could get worse. Just you wait until Dr. House's cane is branded with a Rite Aid logo -- It's House's pharmacy of choice! -- or Jack Bauer uses only Craftsman hacksaws to, uh, do all his dirty work.
Things aren't that bad yet. Right now, networks are focused on tinkering with the format of commercial breaks themselves.
Last season, the CW debuted "content wraps," which, instead of traditional commercials, featured infomercial-style shorts where a network advertiser promoted its product during a discussion about the show you were watching (or even during an interview with the cast members).
NBC would sprinkle "Scrubs" trivia questions throughout commercial breaks, hoping that you'd either watch through them or be tricked into thinking the show was back on and ease off that fast-forward button.
Will these types of little gimmicks be enough to keep advertisers happy?
I hope so, since the alternative could be far more intrusive. The fact remains that advertisers aren't going to pay for commercials that won't be watched, and the networks surely don't intend to broadcast TV shows without making any money from them.
Some solution must be found -- one that doesn't involve me agreeing not to fast-forward through commercials. DVR technology is too darn convenient not to use it.
Plus, I don't want to watch the sixth commercial for the "Transformers" movie that's aired this hour. I presume you all feel the same way.