(Oct. 12) — Can’t Bree grieve anymore without a
MasterCard commercial loudly interfering? Lately, fans of Desperate
Housewives, Lost and other top shows have been complaining about
excessive commercials that seem more intrusive than ever and slow down
the programs they surround.
“I have definitely noticed that the shows on ABC
that I watch have significantly more commercials this season,”
complains Julie Raines, 33, of Denver. “It’s so frustrating. Once you
are really getting into a juicy story line, it stops, and you are
bombarded with the same ads over and over.”
Viewers have been griping about ads on TV since
the days of black-and-white sets. Some have turned to digital video
recorders such as TiVo to skip commercials altogether. Others sit and
ABC ad-sales chief Mike Shaw says he’s perplexed by increasing complaints.
“We’ve had the exact same commercial load for
three years in a row,” he says of the 9 p.m. ET/PT Sunday time slot,
home to Housewives and before that, Alias. Viewers must “feel that way
because they love the show so much, that they really notice it when the
breaks are there.”
But across prime-time TV, the number of ads and
promos has increased sharply over the years. A typical “one-hour”
prime-time series clocks in at less than 42 minutes, down from 44
minutes several years ago and nearly 48 minutes in the 1980s.
And shaving off the “previously on …” recap,
opening credits and a teaser for next week’s episode, Sunday’s
Housewives ran 40 minutes and 30 seconds, meaning for every two minutes
of programming, there’s a minute of commercials or promos for other
network shows. On cable, MTV has even more so-called clutter, with USA
and Lifetime close behind.
But ABC, which studies show has slightly more
commercials than other broadcast networks, has changed its drama format
in a way that makes it seem even more loaded with ads.
Until recently, dramas unfolded in four
segments, or “acts,” often preceded by an introductory teaser that
aired before the opening credits.
Starting this fall, ABC required all drama
producers to carve up each episode into six portions. For some shows,
including Housewives, the first segment runs for nine to 11 minutes
before the first break. Once viewers are hooked, they’re confronted
with four more commercial breaks, each about 3½ minutes long, over the
next 45 minutes.
To prevent channel surfing, networks
increasingly avoid airing commercials between shows. Instead, they save
several minutes of more substantial scenes for a show’s ending and then
move “seamlessly” into the next program. The upshot is that more ads
and promos air within programs. “The way the structure was before
didn’t make any sense,” says ABC Entertainment chief Steve McPherson.
“You’d have people sit through a commercial break to come back to 30
seconds of programming” at the end of an episode.
Lost and Housewives adopted the six-act
structure early last season. ABC quickly expanded the practice to its
entire lineup of hour-long series. Competitors followed suit: WB’s
dramas began adopting the same format last January and since last month
has used it on every show. CBS and NBC employ it on newer shows
including Criminal Minds, Las Vegas, Numb3rs and Surface, although
producers of CSI, Law & Order and ER refused to go along. Fox uses
it only on Bones.
McPherson says most producers “like it because you have real content in each of the acts.”
But Boston Legal producer David E. Kelley isn’t among them.
“There’s no opportunity to develop any kind of
storytelling momentum,” Kelley says, fearing that quiet scenes of
dialogue will never hold up to increasingly loud — and frequent —
commercial breaks. “High-octane shows, or puzzle shows, will be immune
“If a knife is plunged into someone’s sternum,
you pay attention,” Kelley says. “But for shows that don’t depend on
violence or melodramatic scenes, it’s tougher to compete in a six-act
show than in four acts, or in 41 minutes instead of 45 minutes. You
have to be a little more aggressive with them, musically or filmically,
just to get people’s attention back.”
Everwood producer Greg Berlanti says carving up
emotion-packed dramas into even smaller pieces can be “annoying,” even
if it’s a necessary evil in a business that exists to sell advertising.
“It makes you long for the day when everything comes out in boxed sets
of DVDs so you can enjoy it.”
And advertising researchers say the cluttered
airwaves, which also include logos and promos during shows, risk
turning off viewers even from must-see shows and worsening recall of
Yet Nielsen Media Research says TV viewership in U.S. homes hit record highs last season.
“There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in the
business about when viewers are going to say, ‘Enough’s enough,’ but
they haven’t,” says Tim Brooks, a TV historian and research chief at
Lifetime. “It may never be that commercials drive people away from the
set, but it makes them pay less attention to avoid the irrelevant
No federal agency regulates the amount of
commercial time on television. Until 1982, the major networks adhered
to a voluntary code of the National Association of Broadcasters that
limited commercials to 9.5 minutes per hour in prime time. But since
the code was dropped, the number of commercials on prime-time TV has
crept steadily higher.
Housewives sells 11 minutes, 15 seconds of
national ad time and about 2½ minutes of local spots. On Sunday, it ran
4 minutes, 10 seconds of promos for 11 other series. Added up, they
account for nearly 18 of the show’s 61 minutes.
Housewives is among TV’s most expensive shows.
Thirty-second spots that sold for $450,000 in May, in advance of the
season, now fetch $500,000 to $600,000, Shaw says, meaning the network
rakes in at least $5 million an episode.
“If we had extra time to sell, I would tell everybody,” he says.
Advertisers tolerate the excess bunching of commercials for the sake of reaching 25 million viewers in TV’s biggest hits.
Housewives is among a handful of shows “where
there’s tremendous attention, passion and a halo effect where your
commercial might actually resonate,” says Initiative Media’s top ad
buyer Tim Spengler. “Up to a certain point, (they) look the other way.”