A Layman’s Look at Television Commercials

In 1979, the Justice Department filed suit against the National Association of Broadcasters claiming that it was illegal for the members of that trade group to agree to restrict media advertising. The rules of the association would limit the time for advertising to one product in each thirty second spot, display no more than five consecutive advertisements, and limit ads to no more than eight and a half minutes per hour. The litigation was terminated in November of 1982 by a consent decree that removed all restrictions upon the duration of TV commercials, although under Federal Communication Commission guidelines the general objective was to have no more than sixteen minutes of commercial advertisements in a broadcasting hour.

Since that time, regulation of television ads has led to the exclusion of certain products, and the enforcement of the Congressional mandate that commercials must have the same average volume as the programs they accompany. The agency has also enforced the Children’s Television Act that restricts the amount of commercial matter in programs designed for young audiences. As for “adult” television, the FCC objective is one of complete deregulation, giving broadcasters the same freedom of advertisements as that accorded to newspapers. This goal has not been without its critics.

Newton Minow, the distinguished former chair of the FCC, has consistently reminded us that the airways are a natural resource and, as such, a matter of public property rather than private ownership. To his mind, television has become a “vast wasteland” filled with stories of violence and mayhem, with newscasts that report little more than fires and accidents. The whole process is permeated with endless commercials cajoling and offending the audience, and thus distracting the viewer’s attention from the meaning and significance of the underlying programs. With the advent of cable TV and other technological developments, the problem has been greatly magnified. The FCC ideal of sixteen minutes of advertisements per hour is now honored more in the breach than in its observance. Commercial and promotional ads now take up nearly twenty minutes of viewing time within a programming hour, sometimes with short interruptions, but generally within a framework of approximately seven minutes of programming followed by four or five minutes of commercial advertisements and program promotions. Within the commercial break time, a great number and variety of short ads are broadcast, many thirty seconds or less in duration, often repetitive, and nearly doubling the amount of the distractions that the viewer must endure while awaiting the resumption of programming.

It is arguable that the multiplication of television ads is in the public interest since, as consumers, audiences have a desire to know what goods and services are available in the market, and commercials can provide important information on legal developments, and matters of personal and public health. But advertising in excess has more destructive consequences. The relentless visual bombardment reduces viewing audiences to being nothing more than useful elements within the larger and ever-expanding economy. Taken as a whole, the unregulated imposition of advertisements mocks the original hope that television would be an instrument for elevating and enhancing human understanding. Rather, it has become a mass medium that has selling, rather than excelling, as its overarching purpose.

The medium has become a concrete realization of Aldous Huxley’s prediction in his book, Brave New World, that the control of the masses in modern life will not be achieved by the imposition of Orwellian pain, but by the effusion of mindless pleasure. Television has become an economic, rather than a political, tyranny, and its despotic power is most fully expressed in its extensive advertisements. Viewing audiences are constantly manipulated to believe that by purchasing the objects and services displayed by the commercials, they can become happy and contented consumers

It is instructive to compare the laissez-faire attitude toward television commercials, adopted by our Federal Communications Commission, with the position taken by public authorities in other parts of the world. With most, the problem is conceived as one of a conflict of interests, rather than the unlimited expansion of the economic interests of the broadcaster. Outside the United States, it is generally understood that while a broadcaster has legitimate expectations of a reasonable return of advertising revenue, the viewer has a right to a satisfactory viewing experience that also must be respected. Globally, there is a growing awareness that the entitlements of television audiences are being distorted by the excessive interruption of programming by commercials, as well as by their inordinate duration.

The Telecommunication Authority of India is one governmental body that is trying to strike a proper balance of the divergent interests between broadcaster and audience. They have received many complaints from viewers objecting to the incessant interruptions of programs, often at a turning point or climax of the program being watched. The Authority notes that inundation of ads distracts the viewer, and impedes his capacity to comprehend the substantial meaning of the program he is trying to watch on the screen, or the information he is trying to assimilate from news broadcasts. Following European practices, the Indian authority would mandate that advertisements may not be longer than twelve minutes in any broadcast hour, and that the gap between advertising periods shall not be less than fifteen minutes, with a longer break if the program is a movie.

In Great Britain, the problem of excessive TV commercials has been addressed by a Select Committee of the House of Lords. The situation there is complicated by the fact that, in addition to advertisements, consumer subscriptions, and licensing fees, are also sources of revenue. Moreover, the large numbers of public, as well as private, channels make uniform regulation more difficult.

In assessing their own circumstances, the Select Committee was acutely aware of the deplorable over-commercialization in the television industry of the United States.

One commentator observed, from his experience, that television programming here is rendered virtually “unwatchable” because of the persistent interruptions of advertisements, and he was willing to accept more regulation in the UK if it would assure that Britain’s programming would not suffer the same cultural catastrophe as that of their American cousins.

The Select Committee recommended that all television broadcasts be brought to an average norm of seven “adverts” per hour, noting that market research suggests that such a limit was the viewer’s preference. It was believed that this regulation would enhance the viewing experience now impaired by lengthy advertising breaks, both during and between programs. If adapted, the British model would be more rigorous than the European standard, that places a limit of twelve minutes on the amount of advertising that may be shown in any one hour of broadcast time.

A cursory worldwide review of the various regulatory regimes with respect to commercial advertisements on television reveals one overriding weakness in the approach in this country. It is not just that other nations would limit the time allowable for advertisements; it is that, unlike the United States, most recognize that, fundamentally, the problem is one of reconciling different, but important interests: between the commercial advantages of the producer, and the human value of reasonable enjoyment of the viewing experience. Here, by contrast, economic objectives are virtually a sole concern to those who manage the television business. The profit margins of the channels take priority while the viewer is only seen as a consumer and, as such, is left unprotected from the assault of commercial messages. That he or she desires some deeper understanding and sense of continuity in the underlying programming is of little concern to either private or public powers.

As the various forms of mass media become more controlled by an overriding commercialism, what has happened with television is being extended to other forms of social communication, such as the Internet, and other technological advances. And within television itself, commercial-free programming has virtually disappeared. Even public television is not immune from expanding commercialism. What was once a brief notice of program endorsement has been broadened to mini-advertisements. More and more ads are squeezed into Internet and mobile devices. But while the extension of the advertising mentality grows ever larger, it remains true that commercial television is the most pervasive and provocative evidence of the visual marketing of society. If nothing changes in that arena, the degrading consequences will continue to spread throughout the entire social world.

Ample use of “mute” buttons, and developments in the techniques of taping programs, are of some use, but they have limited utility. For the public at-large, the problems will persist, and in the current state of affairs neither the Congress nor the FCC is likely to move beyond the prevailing deregulatory ideology. What is needed is a national conversation on the harm done to the common good by the transformation of television broadcasting, as well as a stimulation of the consciences of those holding the power to direct its purposes. In its evolution, the industry is no longer an enriching mode of communication, benignly influenced by commercial interests. It is becoming an advertising medium that is occasionally interrupted by programming.

The deeper issue is one of respect for the viewer as a person. This is hard for us as a nation to grasp. However much we celebrate individual liberty, we lack the tools for reaching the deeper dimensions of human worth, particularly those regarding the growth of reason and imagination through visual experience. We may gain some insight by rethinking what the Church teaches about the moral and religious standards of social communication.

The basic source is “The Decree On Social Communications” adopted by The Second Vatican Council, and approved by Pope Paul VI, on December 4, 1963. Although it was one of the earliest documents of the Council, it is considered to be one of the least inspiring, even though the Holy Father saw it as an important example of the Church’s capacity to unite the interior and exterior life. While television was within the scope of the decree, there was no attention given to forces, such as advertising, that greatly affect this form of mass communication. However, the bishops made some general observations on the nature and purposes of mass media that can be reflectively developed. They affirmed that these forms of communication could contribute to the refreshment and refinement of the human spirit, but they also realized that they could be instruments of abuse. Such abuse occurs not only when the norms of morality are transgressed, but also when the rights and legitimate expectations of the viewers are not properly recognized. In all that is broadcast, the cultural, as well as the moral development of audiences is at stake, and these entitlements need to be held as sacred.

According to the Council Fathers, there is a right to information that “is not only true, but as complete as charity and justice allow” (I, 5). But the mass audience is also entitled to programming that contributes to “honest relaxation” (II, 14); whatever may be the mode of instruction or entertainment. The value of any programming, from news to sporting events, is distorted and compromised by the constant interruption of commercials. These excessive intrusions deprive the persons participating in the television experience of their full human dignity. Seen only as consumers, audiences are objectified, and become nothing more than useful elements of a deified market.

The correction of the present situation is the special obligation of all the laity who participate in, or are the audiences for, commercial television. Those who direct and control the medium must no longer look upon profits from advertisements as an end in itself, but only as a means towards a reasonable return on investment; a return earned by respecting, rather than subverting, the human value of the audiences, and the higher potentials of this form of mass communication. For their part, the viewing audiences must stop being passive material for a visual enslavement. They must be roused from their lethargy to demand a greater respect for their moral and aesthetic intelligence. Like other civilized nations we should come to understand that while commercial interests can legitimately influence this indispensable medium of communication, they must not be allowed to enslave us.

Cornelius F. Murphy About Cornelius F. Murphy

Cornelius Murphy is a graduate of the College of The Holy Cross, The Boston College Law School, and has a graduate degree from The University of Virginia. He taught law at Duquesne University, and now lives in a retirement community north of Pittsburgh. Of his many publications, the most recent is: "Reflections On Old Age: A Study in Christian Humanism."


  1. Avatar J. E. Sigler says:

    I don’t quite understand what this article is doing in the HPR, or what being a layman has to do with it, or why laity should be the only ones responsible for “correcting the present situation” (after all, some of the biggest television consumers I’ve ever known were priests). But it is an interesting article, and I agree with the central point that excessive advertising dehumanizes the viewer and disrupts culture. I do wish sources had been cited for the historical, policy, and legal claims, so that I could read more about those.

  2. The situation in Ireland re Advertisement intrusiveness has worsened considerably in both public and private broad casting in recent years. What is more there is a crassness and coarseness in many of the latterday advertisements that has to be seen to be believed!

  3. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Hellloooo! Good luck getting the American Church Hierarchy (Bishops, Cardinals, Etc) to say/do something about the intellectual, moral and social sewer that American broadcast media has become when they won’t/can’t even discipline their catholic politicians and judges that openly support abortion, euthanasia and all sorts of soft and hardcore porn.

    • Aug. 8th: We need to stop relying on the Hierarchy – not for television viewers anyway. I don’t know the answer but the barrage of ads thrown at viewers is frustrating – but it’s the helplessness that is the most annoying…sure, we can mute but it’s no longer enjoyable. There must be someone, some group, who could find a way to create a system that will be fair to viewers and owners…if not, it’s going to get worse and we’ll be watching commercials as the main program with shows and movies in between.

  4. Aug. 8, 2017: So many feel frustrated and helpless in the face of endless, mindless commercials we are forced to watch: Optimum has shown as many as 15 ads between segments – not full ads, just a couple of seconds of each – a barrage of mindless shouting! At the end of a long, weary day it used to be good to just relax a bit and enjoy a show – no more. TV is no longer enjoyable – it’s stressful. And they even show girls soliciting men on ads for ‘friendship’; explicitly graphic sexual ads are shown; there’s no such thing as TV for children anymore…surely there must be some entrepreneurs out there who could create a decent cable company – fair to the company and the consumer…is there no one?