Former U.S. News and USA Today journalist Steve Sternberg this week published a 222-page report entitled “The Rise and Fall of Ad-Supported Cable TV.” (I would link to it, but I suspect he prefers if you pay to have a look.) The Sternberg Report takes an exhaustive look at the rise of original scripted entertainment programming on ad-supported and premium cable, and how the rise of streaming services is impacting the TV landscape.
While I confess I did not read every word of the report, Sternberg seemed to make no distinction between scripted, ad-supported programming that runs on broadcast TV, versus that which runs without ads on premium cable or steaming services. In other words, a great show is great no matter where it runs. But I disagree.
There’s no question that ad-supported cable networks were prompted to move into racier programs that ran contrary to the usual network standards and practices once ad-free HBO started offering dramas that featured offensive language, nudity and graphic violence (all the things that make you want to tune in). Some of those cable shows turned out to be gigantic hits, like “Mad Men” and “The Shield,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “Portlandia.” But they all had ad breaks throughout.
I appreciate that the ads paid for the programming, but with a couple of clicks (now, voice commands), consumers can switch to scripted dramas on premium cable and streaming services and not have to contend with interruptions every five or six minutes. In response, ReplayTV, Dish and TiVo introduced DVRs that would automatically skip commercials. Naturally the networks sued, claiming copyright infringement, but although the courts did not agree, nearly every DVR maker eliminated automated commercial skipping. Viewers quickly adopted to skipping manually, although the nets claim that recording is primarily for delayed viewing, not for skipping commercials.
All these events coincided with the rise of the Internet and the shift of ad spending to online and mobile, away from over-the-air traditional television. In response, the networks doubled down, adding more commercial minutes per hour while claiming they were cutting commercial time back. None of this was lost on viewers like me, who started to avoid entire networks like IFC and Sundance which heavy up their commercial loads in the later half of the show, figuring you have invested this much time so won’t stop watching. No, not really.
The end result is that consumers have learned that the only way to watch ad-supported dramas is to record them, watch them later and skip the commercials pods that often run from six to 10 spots in a single break. In fact, there is nothing I watch on ad-supported TV (including the evening news) that I don’t record and later skip the commercials. This lets me watch a three- or four-hour football game in about an hour. But most importantly, I am not seeing the same “football audience-targeted” spots over and over and over.
One might argue that the Netflixes of this world have grown so massive because they offer expensive-to-produce programming that is exclusive to them. But as Sternberg demonstrates in his report, the cable networks are capable of producing nearly equal quality programming.
The big difference is the commercial breaks. While I am sure every ad-supported cable network has reams of stats to show that advertising within their programming is highly effective in producing sales, it's hard to believe that all they haven’t chased away potential viewers who won’t tolerate ad loads that approach 15 minutes an hour.