Please Embrace This Commercial Interruption

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In a plot twist worthy of Lost, it turns out that TV commercials aren’t obnoxious interruptions after all. They’re helpful interruptions, which increase your enjoyment of TV by periodically reminding you how much you’d rather be watching your favorite show.

That’s according to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, which found that commercials restore a sense of novelty to TV programming by breaking up the cycle which we become bored with following what’s on the screen.

In one of several experiments, the study’s authors screened the sitcom Taxi for two groups. One group saw an episode with commercial interruptions, and the other saw an episode with no interruptions. Those who saw Taxi with commercial breaks enjoyed it more, by a decisive margin.

In the authors’ words: “[A]t every given moment, watching the sitcom will still be more enjoyable than watching a detergent commercial.” That contrast could be one factor that kept the show fresh for viewers in the experiment.

But aren’t TV shows more fun with commercial breaks included precisely because they’re written with these interruptions in mind? Filmmakers don’t seem to need commercial breaks to keep audiences interested. Or could Sam Mendes have pushed his Revolutionary Road into a Golden Globe for best drama by chopping it up with a few well-timed words from his sponsors?

(Hat tip: Ars Technica, via Sam Kallen)


oddTodd

I have to agree that it's the way the show is written to take advantage of the commercial breaks. They should do a similar study with an episode of the Sopranos, but stick in commercials about where they'd go in a regular show.

Tribrix

If you've seen a lot of TV shows, sans commercials in the "breaks" you know it can be kind of weird, to see a cliff hanger, fade to black, and return instantly with a recap of the same cliff hanger. It's very anti-climactic and obvious how the show was designed to be seen. Obviously, feature films are not made with commercial breaks in mind (and suffer when they are added).

teej

It makes a lot of sense. Sometimes, when I'm reading, I get bored. But whenever I start hitting myself in the head with a hammer instead, I totally wish I was reading!

kip

What if they watched the show but had to manually fastforward through the commercial breaks (like a DVR user), would the fastforwarding break be enough of a break to make the show better?

This a bit off-topic.. but I've noticed a new tactic by movie advertisements: they keep the name of the movie and the release data visible and static in a bar at the top of the screen for the whole commercial. This must be to advertise to DVR users who are fastforwarding through the commercials, but still watching the screen to know when to stop fastforwarding. I think it is very clever.

Aeirlys

I despise commercials if I'm watching TV alone, but do actually find them useful if watching with a group of people. I don't think commercials restore a "sense of novelty" because personally, if I'm that bored I'm more likely to turn the program off than subject myself to commercials and boring TV.

But if I'm watching TV with a group, commercials are useful because they give us a chance to mute them and then talk about what we just saw and make predictions about the rest of the show (Lost, I'm looking at you). We end up doing this anyway if we watch a season on DVD, we just end up using the pause button instead of the mute button.

addicted

I think it depends on the show....

Shows like Lost, which have an intense plot, are much better enjoyed (IMO) with a commercial break. At least when watching it with friends, we can kinda discuss stuff, and fill in the gaps...

I also like commercial breaks in comedies, to give you a little break from the laughter.

Also, some shows (Arrested Development springs to mind) make really good use of the commercials in many of their episodes, which allow them to add more humor.

However, game shows, and reality shows dont gain anything from commercials.

ceolaf

Beating the dead horse:

The better the writing, the more the commercial breaks matter. Now, there is also some really good writing on TV that does not intentionally use commercial breaks, but most of the best writing does. And the great premium cable shows (e.g The Soporanos, Dexter, Six Feet Under, etc.) suffer for the additional breaks.

This hit me hardest when I was watching the West Wing back in the day. Sorkin would raise tensions going into a break, and needed the break for the views to return to a more normal level for the next scene. It was just too jarring without the break.

So, this is not a matter of breaks being inherently good. Rather, it is a matter of great writers understanding and writing for the presentation of their material.

Robert

This test seems more than a little flawed as it fails to control for the kind of content. A sitcom is only one kind of tv show genre. I'm entirely doubtful that the same results apply to tv shows with drama.

Furthermore, I think they're not accounting for the kind of audience either, which I think can be split into either devoted fans or casual watchers. I'm certain that fans would be much more disgruntled by commercial breaks than casual watchers.

Trent

I actually don't mind commercials when I am watching TV with friends. It gives us time to chat (and when you are watching Lost, you HAVE to chat during the breaks). I DO mind the commercials being 300% louder. We typically just hit "mute".

When I am alone, however, I despise commercials. For this reason, I mostly watch my TV shows via DVD. Take "30 Rock". Each episode is 22 minutes. I can watch 3 of them in about an hour, whereas with a TV broadcast, I could only watch 2.

Angelo

If this argument is correct I must start hitting my face periodically, so I will enjoy not having pain "more".

I have a problem with these type of experiments with results that cannot be generalized to other situations. They are too context dependent.

Dan

Tribrix raises a good point that the fact that these tv shows were designed with commercials in mind is hard to remove from a study of this nature. I'd assume, like you, that feature films would suffer from commercials, but then again I had assumed that TV shows suffer from commercials too, despite being designed with them in mind (I like watching my tv shows on TIVO or buying seasons of DVDs... I had assumed this was increasing my enjoyment). Maybe commercials would increase the enjoyment of movies too. I'll wait to see the study to make any guesses about that outcome.

mfw13

I think it depends to some extent on the show and how it is written. If it is a HBO or Showtime show written to be viewed in one hour-long block, then adding in commercials would probably decrease viewer enjoyment. However, sitcoms like Taxi which air on commercial channels are written in short acts to make room for the commercials.

My bias is against commercials, as I always flip channels during commercial breaks....

Harrkar

If the show is really interesting, then u dont need any commercials..

if its dragging and interesting in bits and pieces, then u would need commercial to relief.

Hydra

So why do they increase the volume 50% or more so that you autmatically hit the mute button?

Isn't ter technology that sensies this and stops the idiots from screaming at you?

jon

Has anyone taken into account that Taxi just isn't as funny now as it was 30 years ago? :)

Re: the static area on the commercials. I haven't seen that, but I've been wondering aloud since I got my DVR a few years ago why commercials didn't do something like that, to get at least a FEW seconds' exposure...

Jessica

If you need the commericals to make the show more interesting, you're watching bad TV.

I do agree that commericals are nice when watching TV in a group of friends-- gives everyone a chance to talk about what happened, get more popcorn, etc. But its annoying when you're alone and actually watching something. I'm sure if they need breaks for suspense they could come up with something less irritating.

Matt

They should repeat the test with some BBC sitcoms that were not written with commercial breaks in mind (older sitcoms would probably be best as these days the writers might be considering the international market where commercials would be added).

Sudha M

The interruptions are welcome when I am watching tv and have to do other things like get a drink or check on the stove. This is most obvious when PBS has something good, I have to plan according to the show timings and can't leave my seat as there are no breaks.
There is something very enjoyable though when we watch a marathon of Sopranos or Weeds dvds and the continuity is great fun. It means we watch 3-4 episodes at a stretch and the interweaving plot lines are more intense.

anandine

If this were true, wouldn't people who have TiVo watch the commercials, because it made them like the shows more? Or does the act of fast forwarding satisfy the need for novelty?

Jim

A number of semi-documentary cable shows (like New Detectives, First 48 etc) do 10 minutes of show, a 3 minute break, then a minute of recap for the audience they assume has forgotten everything during the break.

It's a bit insulting and mildly annoying. On the plus side, you can jump into the show at any point and pick up the thread.

Thank goodness for Tivo -- I can outfox them with one finger (-: