Monday, May 30, 2016

Going Commercial

I blame RCA.

Back in late 1977, I got my very first VHS videocassette recorder--an RCA SelectaVision VBT-200. It could record in 2-hour mode (SP) or 4-hour mode (LP) on a cassette that cost somewhere north of $25 plus tax if you bought 'em locally, or $20 each if I ordered a case of twelve from a mail-order supplier in California.

The VBT-200 didn't have a wireless remote--just a wired pause/play-record switch with about fifteen or so feet of cord. When I was watching a TV show I was recording, I'd routinely pause the unit during the commercials to conserve tape--but since much of my recording was done for time-shifting purposes, that wasn't feasible. So about 20-25% of what I was recording was actually commercials, end credits, etc. That

I was actually the second person in my family to buy a VBT-200. My dad bought one two months before I did. Which meant that we had access to two machines. So once every couple of weeks, I'd lug my machine to Mom & Dad's and we'd hook up the output of one machine to the input of another to dub off tapes.... and of course, we'd pause the recording unit during the commercials, editing them out to conserve tape.

Shortly after that, I bought a second VHS unit and could edit recordings in the comfort of my own home... which I did on a regular basis.

And thus began my rejection of commercials.

Today, when I look at recordings of old shows (yes, I can still play back my VHS tapes and my Beta tapes on a few old units I have that are still functional), I wish those commercials were still there.

That's the funny thing about commercials. At the time you're watching commercial programming, you want to see the show, so the commercials are an intrusion that delays instant gratification. Skip ahead a few years, and you see it somewhat differently, though: the commercials are a link to the past, a shard of culture and society that creates a link ot another time in our lives.

I have a dozen or so tapes and DVDs of old commercials, carefully preserved by popular culture historians and aficionados who recognized the value of such gems. Cereal commercials, toy commercials, car commercials, antacid commercials--they're all here, along with ads for movies and television shows and so much more.

When I was a kid, I watched commercials routinely. I had no choice. Sure, we would all use some of that time to grab a snack, or maybe to go to the bathroom, but for the most part, we watched. We talked with other people in our family about commercials. We made purchase decisions based on them. Kids like me made Christmas lists and grocery-store wish lists based on what we saw advertised on TV. Heck, we even bought records of music originally done for commercials ("No Matter What Shape Your Stomach's In" by the T-Bones, or "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" by the New Seekers).

Pay-TV cemented the anti-commercial sentiment. We could pay extra money each month and watch movies without commercials. then came Sirius and XM, which allowed us to pay extra money each month and listen to music without commercials.

For a while, I've edited out commercials on TV shows that I record on my Mac. As I convert the recording from MPEG-2 to MP4, I tag the commercials and drop them out of the transfer; it's an easy enough process, and it saves me about 18 minutes of recording time for an hour-long program. But I didn't edit out all the commercials; I began leaving in a few commercials that I liked. For November and December programming, I began leaving in even more commercials as a sort of memory tag for the holiday season.

A few weeks ago, I drifted away from my iPod, from Pandora, and from Sirius-XM and began exploring the FM dial once again. I found a few stations I enjoyed listening to, and I found myself listening to the commercials as well. Concert ads, jewelry store ads (Tom Shane, anyone?...), grocery store ads, TV programming ads... they're all still there on various radio programs, and many of them made me remember the ads I used to hear on WKLS-FM 96 Rock back in the 1970s. The first time I ever heard of a new hamburger chain called Wendy's, I was listening to 96 Rock. I first learned about Peaches Records through a radio ad, and made the two hour drive from Cedartown to Atlanta to experience the wonder of a record store the size of a Kmart.

There's something about a commercial that creates a connection, a link to a larger world. And every now and then, I find a commercial that is as good as--or even better than--the program itself. 

Don't get me wrong--I'm still going to edit out commercials on some programs. But I'm going to leave the commercials in on others, just as a way of saving a little slice of life. A few years from now, I think I'll  be glad I did.

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