The late writer David Foster Wallace said this about advertising: “An ad that pretends to be art is — at absolute best — like somebody who smiles warmly at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defences even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.”
DFW wasn’t around to watch this year’s French Open tennis tournament on PTV Sports or he wouldn’t have understated the case to quite such an extent. Despair doesn’t even begin to describe the emotions any rational human being would feel when, during the Roger Federer-Novak Djokovic semi final — one of the marquee matches of the tournament — the channel would switch to an advertisement while a service game was still ongoing or, even worse, in the middle of a point.
There are only a few rules to follow when it comes to sports and advertising. In tennis, you wait for a service game to end before cutting to ads; the time for ads during a football game is when the players are on a half-time break; and in cricket the fall of a wicket or the end of an over are the only times you can cut away from the action. PTV Sports is an egregious violator of these simple restrictions.
The obvious motivation for this crime against sports fans is the lure of the advertising rupee. According to the rates posted on the website of the Pakistan Television Corporation, the most expensive rate for a 60-second spot is Rs44,075 with an additional 400 per cent surcharge added for those who want to advertise right after the headlines are read during the “Khabarnama”. No specific rates are given for live sporting events but there is a disclaimer stating that advertising rates for such events have to be negotiated separately. For the French Open, the football European Championships and the Pakistan-Sri Lanka cricket series, this must be very pricey indeed. Hence, we get the constant interruptions, which lead viewers to miss a considerable portion of the action.
The problem of excessive advertising is particularly pronounced during live sports and popular dramas because the channel airing them has a monopoly. Thus, if we want to catch our favourite show or match we can’t just switch to another channel.
The obvious solution would be for the Pakistan Television Corporation, which after all collects a license fee and so does not rely exclusively on advertising revenue, to put in place a code of conduct to strictly regulate the amount of advertising permitted during every hour of programming. But even that is unlikely to work. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), in its 2009 notification, which later became an act of parliament, strictly limited advertising to no more than three continuous minutes and with a gap of at least 15 minutes between ad breaks. This, as any masochist whose idea of fun was to watch the IPL on Geo Super will tell you, is observed only in the breach. The PEMRA seems to have no interest in enforcing its own rules, most likely because to renew licences, it collects between five to seven per cent of advertising revenue from cable and satellite channels.
When your regulatory authority has a direct financial stake in increased advertising, it is game, set and match for the ‘mad men’ of the advertising world.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 14th, 2012.
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