In Pod We Trust

With the start of the television season, I had the distinct impression that there were more commercials on the air than there were last year. As my annoyance at the frequency and duration of commercial breaks mounted, I started timing different programs (played back from my DVR) to see if the commercial load had actually increased this season. For the purposes of my test, commercials were anything non-program-related, including, commercial advertising, promos for other programs, opening credits, and next week's teaser. The surprise was that even though there are more breaks per hour for many programs, the commercial load is no greater than last year's. Embarrassed that I was prepared to bash the networks without cause, I wrote off my hypersensitivity to yet another symptom of being too long a member of the media industry. Still, it feltas if there were more commercials.

Vindication came on October 12, when USA Today published an article about TV viewers' complaints of significantly more commercials this season. The fact is that hour-long prime-time programs are actually between 40:30 and 42 minutes in length, same as last year. It just feels like there are more commercials. If you really want to feel the pain, consider that with the current ratio, for every two minutes of program, there is one minute of commercials. Quite a price to pay for free TV.



Just how much is enough anyway? Consider that in the U.K., one-hour programs have 8.5 to 12 minutes of commercials, about half that of the U.S. programs. Now you know why friends from overseas cannot sit through your favorite prime-time drama while they're in the States.

So why would the networks shift from four commercial breaks per hour to five? Right now, more breaks means the pods are shorter. Right now. Every two or three years since 1996, networks have been adding a unit or two per hour to commercial inventory. But with only four breaks per hour, there is a limit to how many commercials you can string back-to-back before viewers start stepping out to wash their cars during the break. With five breaks, another 30 seconds could be added per pod, and it still wouldn't be as long as the old four-break pod. And in a year or two when a five-break pod is as long as the old four-break pod they can go the Clear Channel radio route, cut the standard unit length in half, and start the escalation cycle all over again.

Is there an advertising threshold at which people will just stop watching television? No. But technology is providing consumers the simple methodology to stop watching advertising. As marketers move their dollars to other, more effective alternatives, their TV budgets will decay, demand will fall, and fewer commercials will air. At that point the networks' golden goose will become just another animal in the barnyard.

I think I'll write a TV script about the decline of television industry advertising. I wonder how many commercials I could sell.

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