Are We At The Final Act Of The TV Commercial?


According to rumors in the big media, we may have a new endangered species: the television commercial. Before you stop, cheer and do the happy dance, let us take time to mourn… OK, enough crying.

The reason for the possible limiting of, if not actually ending, commercials is that there are so many of them that people who actually have to sit through them no longer even focus on them. I counted 15 different commercials in one three-minute break. That is an average of 12 seconds each. However, as Einstein remarked that since time is relative, each seemed longer.

Even more to the point, most of us are not watching. The first strike was the coming of premium channels. HBO only has commercials for its own shows, for example. And shows can be better when the plots are not designed to fit around blocks of commercials. Most shows are made up of a group of short acts because of the advertising. Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services allow us to watch TV for hours without having to bother with commercials. Add to that the bonus that we get to watch a show when we want to and not when some overpaid executive decides it should be shown.

The second strike was the remote control. Why watch a whole series of commercials for products you have no interest in when you can flick to a sports channel or even watch a few minutes of news? If you have a “picture in picture” TV, you can even keep track of when your show returns. While men switching through channels repeatedly is a stereotype, more people are checking to see what else is on while the commercials are running.

The third strike was the advent of DVRs and computer showings of TV programming. I seldom watch anything except sports and news the same day it is shown. I can watch 43 minutes of NCIS on Wednesday, using extreme fast-forwarding to get through commercial breaks in seconds. Even better, I can do binge-watching of a show. My wife discovered Breaking Bad at our daughter’s house while spending time with our new grandson. She was able to watch it for hours at a time, stopping when she wanted (or more precisely, when the baby needed attention) and then returning. She went hours and hours without commercials until the last episode.

Added to all of that was the shattering of the large audience paradigm. A top scripted program now would be thrilled to get 20 million viewers. Ads now have to be spread over hundreds of channels, and the major networks are losing viewers every year.

The advertisers have begun to shorten commercials, and, in some cases, they have run-on commercials. That happens when one commercial begins, and before it ends, a totally different commercial for a different product comes on. It looks like programming error; not possible in these computer-driven days. But it gets the name of the product in really fast and cheap.

Does it do any good? Your guess is as good as mine, and possibly as good as those of the “experts.” They claim that the best advertising targets are young adults. That really works well when a huge portion of them are back living at home and working at jobs for which they are overqualified and underpaid.

But now advertisers and the “experts” are trying to find ways to get our attention and keep it. They have come to understand that a 15-second commercial contains very little information. Some of them argue that we need better ads; the ones done for the Super Bowl are often brilliant. But for the rest of the time, we’re watching decidedly “un-brilliant” ads. Or, more to the point, not watching them.

Would it be better to simply pay fees upfront and then watch commercial-free TV? We do that, and the shows that come out of those networks take most of the nominations and win most of the awards. On the other hand, a lot of people prefer not to pay.

What will happen? Chances are, there will be more of a mix. Times are changing, and they are changing fast.