Person using remote control to change TV stations

Advertisements are the worst drain on your intelligence since that Star Trek brain parasite thing. At least that could be cured by a solid dose of antibiotics or, failing that, being shot by a Klingon. But before they’ve even beamed up your corpse for space jettison, there’ll be another ad break — and you’ll lose five more minutes of your life (or death) to people trying to sell you things.

Obviously the simplest and most productive way to avoid commercials is just to stop watching TV. And while you’re at it, why not “just” exercise for two hours every evening, learn forensic science and pick up a couple of extra languages. Heck, why not “just” become Batman while you’re at it?

Some things are easier said than done, and setting unreasonable self-improvement goals is a great way to waste energy on excuses, guilt and inevitable failure. It’s far smarter to stick to enjoying those sweet cathode rays (or LCD radiation), but cut down on the wasteful breaks.

Methods Tried, But Not True

You likely have a bunch of ad-avoiding options already developed, but let’s be honest: they’re all junk. Changing channels to pass the time is worse than useless; you substitute terrible things that are designed to be understood in seconds for fragments of worse things that aren’t. Plus, there’s a real risk you’ll hit an “Idol” or reality show and lose five IQ points for every second you stay exposed.

Leaving the room during ad-breaks avoids such contamination, at the cost of making the entire project completely backwards. Now you’re building your life around the entertainment, the thing that was meant to serve you in your spare time? That’s like calling a taxi but having to get out and push. Every time you start a different task there’s a mental “start-up” cost, and here you’re losing that twice every ten minutes. Besides, TV is just so much less enjoyable when interrupted — it’s hard to believe that Jack Bauer can single-handedly defend democracy when even his clock is interrupted by detergent ads.

Stop Wasting Your Time

In the early days of print, there may well have been times the discerning gentleman needed to find out which brands of horse-hoofing powder did or didn’t contain arsenic, but modern ads are built for those who need color-coded graphical aids to understand where in your body a headache might strike. When a company is using computerized special effects and stirring techno music to sell a car, it’s because they don’t have a single good thing to actually say about it. So don’t listen.

Since 2006, the average American home has had more TVs than people; now we have to learn to defend ourselves against them just to remain the dominant species. Three hundred million people watching an average of 2.6 hours per day adds up to nearly eight million man hours a year. That’s a company of fourteen hundred people working full 40 hour weeks for a year doing nothing but watching women prance after being liberated by a new brand of tampon. Less effort goes into finding a cure for the hantavirus… and that stuff bloody kills people.

On average, 26 percent of television programming is dedicated to commercials. In a 30-minute show, you get about eight minutes of ads. In a 60-minute show, there’s about 18 minutes of commercials. That’s a lot. Over the course of a year, the average American spends 246 hours watching commercials. During that time, you could take a page out of Tim Ferriss’ book and master a skill.

Some suggest BitTorrent as a way to bypass the crap and extract the pure televisual goodness, but this is a dangerous tactic. The “kid in a candy store” urge to pull down everything you see can cripple your connection, not to mention annihilate your productivity effectively forever — modern cable connections can download the shows onto your hard drive far faster than the screen can inject them via your eyes. Sifting and sorting the resulting forests of files is another “hidden cost” in terms of time and expense. Before you know it, you have five hard drives overloaded with videos and no time to watch any of them.

Use Technology in Your Favor

TiVo (or some other PVR solution) offers an easier option while sticking to the TV schedule, meaning you won’t be lost when they talk about Lost (nor do you have to be the psycho running past with fingers in his ears, screaming, “Don’t tell me! Don’t tell me!”). You might only think of this show-recorder as a way to catch shows you’d otherwise miss, but it can be cunningly used immediately after the show airs. Sit down one hour later to watch the gold your digital box has sifted from the mud of adverts. All the benefit of recording, without risking a friend spoiling the fact that Locke’s actually the clone of a time-traveling wizard robot (or whatever it is they’ll have to do to tie things up now).

This time-shifting can also combat the dreaded anti-social life. The nine o’clock show is specifically sent by the networks to keep you in front of the screen all night: too early to let you out right after work, but too late for many to venture away from the screen afterwards. It sits like a block in the middle of any weeknight plans, but only having one watched show for a whole night of your life? That’s tragic. Let your recorder stay in front of the screen — you can go out and enjoy it when you come back.

The TiVo technique is especially effective for big events like Monday Night Football. These are events which used to be all about the viewer, but now they have more ad content than Ad McAdsons “Big Book of Ads.” You can skim them right out by just waiting a bit. It’s like pretending you’re on Pacific Time… or if you’re already on Pacific Time, like pretending you’re peacefully submerged in the ocean where ads can’t bother you.

By using a DVR, you can watch TV when you want to and not when the network executives tell you to. Spend your productive hours being, you know, productive. Get things done. Then, you can batch your TV watching during your non-peak productive times. Better still, avoiding the commercials could mean that you’ll avoid wasting money on the useless junk they try to push on you.

Getting Beyond the TiVo Technique

If you don’t care about information leakage — or watch shows so obscure you can’t tell other people, let alone talk to them about it — the DVD box set can also be useful. It lets you apply “batching” to your entertainment, setting your brain directly to “enjoy” and soaking in the world of West Wing, Firefly or the murderous Dexter. Warning: if you’re going to watch Galactica a series at a time, be sure to have some kind of support group or grief counsellor available.

When you Amazon your order (if you still actually go to physical shops for discs, you found Smart Life Blog just in time), be sure to stick to your guns: you’re here to save time and money. That means the minimum-edition, no-extras-thank-you, “I’d just like to watch the show if it’s all the same to you” version of the box set. The studios strategically suck the obsessives dry at the DVD counter, releasing minor updates every couple of months. This can work in your favor — when the “platinum” 5-point-1-definitive-ultimate-mega edition ships, the “gold” we-told-you-this-was-definitive-but-we-lied version gets cheaper. Take that instead.

Probably the best reward-to-effort ratio can be achieved with Netflix. Whenever something catches your eye, you can add it to your queue without extra expense. Set your delivery frequency to match your weekly watching time available and just enjoy them as they come: no more “umm ah which should we watch?”, no more boxing/unboxing a disc-based Library of Congress, no more losing half your sitting room to storage. You’re left with just having fun, watching stuff on the screen.

Which, you may dimly remember, was originally the point.

Image credit: Terraxplorer / iStockphoto

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