The last few years have been hard on poor old television.
Viewership has fallen across the board as core audiences – guys aged 18 to 34 in particular – are abandoning the device that raised them, opting instead for game controllers and the internet. Meanwhile, those who have remained loyal to TV are failing to remain similarly loyal to the advertising that makes it profitable, increasingly choosing to get their fix via commercial-annihilating digital recorders, ad-light DVDs, and (horror of horrors) pirated downloads.
With viewers putting up blinders to the ad-program-ad rhythm of for-profit television, the desirability of the conventional 30-second commercial spot is tanking. For the first time in decades, several key markets have witnessed decreases in spending on such spots, as marketers demand the ever-elusive bigger bang with in-program product placements and full-on brand integration within storylines. The result: as much as 15 full minutes of every programming hour in North America is now dedicated to integrated ads, with shows like American Idol topping out at over 4,000 per season – all of this in addition to the average of 14 to 22 minutes out of 60 still set aside for traditional spots.
Given TV's incredible shrinking credibility, especially in the case of broadcast journalism, it is little wonder that we have suffered through the ceaseless debate over whether we live under the thumb of a "liberal media" or a "conservative media." Luckily, we can safely disregard the question of television's political affiliation, since we are rapidly approaching a McLuhan-esque implosion that will render the answer irrelevant. It's the moment when the specifics of the rock 'em, sock 'em talking-head debates may be school massacres or missing pageant queens, but the message itself remains the same. That message is television, an ingenious device for the capturing of eyeballs. Gradually, it has been pressed into the service of a singular purpose, one that requires the exclusion of dissonant ideas to efficiently function.
Adbusters began, in large part, as a product of outrage over just how destructive, self-serving, and at times downright insane the deliberate exclusions of this system have become. We've learned, for example, that the keepers of the airwaves will permit you to expose the perils of cardiovascular disease; you may not, however, tell the truth about a major advertiser's fat-laden products. Similarly, you are allowed to ask kids to get more exercise, but you can't ask them to turn off their TVs in order to do so. You may encourage women to ignore the images produced by the beauty industry and to feel good about their own bodies, no matter the shape or size – but only if you're selling soap in the process. Most gallingly, you can pay lip service to tackling climate change, and yet you can't challenge people to buy less stuff as a way to actually go for it.
But it's possible that you don't care. Maybe you gave up on television a long time ago. Maybe you don't even own a TV anymore. For your personal peace of mind, that was probably a good move; with an estimated 112 million television households in the US alone, however, we only ignore the stirrings of TV at our own peril. The last couple of decades have seen unprecedented levels of consolidation in mass media. Today, the movers and shakers of TV are the very same people and corporate entities who control the majority of newspapers, of radio stations, of book publishing, of outdoor advertising, of music distribution, of film production, and of your favorite social networking sites. The dirty tricks and the sleights of hand that are used to keep urgent, dissonant messages off the air aren't in any way specific to TV. They are the natural consequences of corporate rule, and they will be brought to bear whenever we are too distracted to stand in the way.
Not by accident, more and more people are doing just that – stepping up to join the ongoing battle against a media system that has left civil society out in the cold and in the dark, a media system that has been busily propagating itself at the expense of our social, cultural, political and environmental health. It's a battle that Adbusters has proudly taken up with its ongoing lawsuit against CanWest, Canada's biggest media conglomerate.
What's at stake in this struggle is not just access, but the creation of a whole new media aesthetic: a messier, more spontaneous and unpredictable energy that fosters participation and social relevance – a genuine engine for positive change. If Adbusters' lawsuit is a success, one of the first manifestations of this aesthetic will be a strange new mood – exciting, challenging, even slightly dangerous – every time you switch on the box in your living room, where previously there was only a moribund device completely sewn-up by private, for-profit interests. This strange new mood will prove once and for all that television (just like newspapers, magazines and radio before it, and like the internet after it) is able to do much more than sell us on the idea of buying, and that it can provide services of vital importance to the health of our species and its democracies. Like all exciting, challenging and slightly dangerous new moods, we're betting this one will prove to be pretty damned infectious.