'The Office' and Its Ilk Just Don't Work as Well Without a Break

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 8, 2009

It's an older episode of "The Office," the one where Stanley goes berserk and Pam wears her ugly glasses and Darryl tells Michael he belongs to a gang called "the Newsies." You watched it when it first aired, and it was so good you're now watching it again online, streamed to your laptop through the Netflix "Watch Instantly" option.

But . . . wait . . . is this the right episode? Something seems off. "In the gang world, we use something called Fluffy Fingers," Darryl is saying. Heh heh heh. Cute. But last viewing, it was more HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! Funnier, somehow. Better rhythm. More substantive.

How can the online experience feel so different? Empirically, it's the exact same program. And even better, this time it's commercial-free.

Ah. This, the marvelous absence of ads, might be the problem. Because as irritating as some commercials might seem -- yeah, we're looking at you, Glade PlugIn lady -- they are built into television shows like another character or plot point. And when we watch our favorite TV shows online, as everyone says we'll be doing in the future -- yeah, we're looking at you, Alec Baldwin in the Hulu.com ads -- we are not actually watching the same product.

Consider the writing that goes into a typical sitcom: "We think about the act breaks, and what will make viewers come back after the break," says Anthony Farrell, a story editor and writer for "The Office." In the TV writing room, stories aren't conceived in 21-minute arcs, but in six- or seven-minute ones, with intrigue peaking just before the commercial. Will Stanley apologize to Michael? Did Charlotte really die in "Lost"? Will J.D. from "Scrubs" make out with Elliot . . . again?

The ad breaks directly inform the pacing of the television program: They are the equivalent of a rest in a bar of music -- a pause that gives the content weight and meaning.

From an audience member's perspective, they are what makes network television social. We use the commercial breaks to talk amongst ourselves, to take bets on the J.D./Elliot situation and to decide that no one ever really dies on "Lost."

And recently, a few researchers say they have found proof that advertisements benefit the viewing experience. In one portion of this study, sponsored by New York University, study authors split 87 college students into two groups and showed both the same episode of "Taxi," taped from syndication. One half saw the show with commercials intact. For the other half, all ads were neatly removed. The group that watched with commercials enjoyed the program more.

Much of this result can be attributed to the pacing described by Farrell. "Taxi" was always meant to be viewed with ads. But when researchers repeated the study with programs meant to be ad-free -- a Bollywood musical, a documentary -- they found the same result. Participants liked the versions with ads better.

Why? Researchers think it has something to do with "hedonic adaptation," a term hypothesizing that any pleasurable activity will become less pleasurable over time. "A song you love becomes monotonous after a hundred plays," says one of the study's authors, Jeff Galak, a doctoral candidate studying the psychology of marketing at NYU. The ninth bite of cake never tastes as good as the first. Television programming, though not a piece of cake, might function in the same way. Darryl's hilarity wanes with each passing minute.

"Commercials reset that boredom," Galak says. When you come back from the ad, the show is suddenly new again, like that very first bite.

After all, the same commercial breaks that can give a story structure could also become a crutch for writers. They don't have to move the action away from the "Two and a Half Men" living room or from a Seattle Grace elevator to shake things up. In some ways, they don't have to work as hard to create suspense; the commercial breaks take care of it for them. (The study found that commercials are less effective in helping shows that have complex plots -- think "The Wire" -- because in those cases, we need to focus more than we need variety.)

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