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Give Us a Commercial Break!
What's So Funny About Ad-Free Shows? Not as Much, Actually

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.)

Actually, it's probably not the commercials that work, but simply the break in viewing, says Leif Nelson, an NYU study co-author. Pausing the program to water the plants or fold the towels probably would have the same rejuvenating effect for viewers. Even fast-forwarding through commercials with a DVR, says Nelson, could provide enough of a break to reset viewer boredom.

But in order for that to work, commercials have to be present to begin with. And online -- as on DVD -- they're often not. Online, we don't get as many set breaks, so it appears that Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer never, ever leave their places on the sofa, and you, the viewer, begin to get a sympathetic butt cramp.

Television has to make some money, on regular, laptop or pocket-size screen, which is why marketing people study viewing behavior. In 2008, 34 percent of adults reported viewing some type of online video at least once a week; 8 percent said they went online weekly to watch TV shows, according to a survey from Leichtman Research Group.

Until the moneymen figure this out, what's a laptop-loving TV viewer to do? The obvious answer is to engage in some commercial-replacement therapy -- to perform an activity that honors the natural breaks that the writers have placed in the show. Pause Netflix where the commercial breaks should go -- you can probably tell by the brief blackout -- and get a drink of water.

A more intriguing option is to try online-only shows (recommendation: "With the Angels" on Strike.tv, created by the people behind Lonelygirl15). Because these shows were created specifically for the Web, they don't follow the traditional structure of shows created for television.

For example, on Strike.tv, a Web home for nearly 40 Internet-only series that launched recently, most of the shows top out at 10 minutes per episode, with many much shorter. There's no need to reset boredom when a show is only four minutes long. Mary Feuer, creator of "With the Angels," says she experiments with a lot of first-person narrative for her characters, an intimate device that engages the typical laptop viewer and makes watching the show "an active participatory thing."

Other producers of Web television experiment with techniques that replicate the feeling of ads.

Consider "Graduates," an online-only show that clocks in at 36 minutes, with no commercial breaks. It's received about 65,000 hits, which is respectable for the Web, and piddling for traditional TV. The show -- as a show -- is pretty generic. You have the one TA who struggles to resist the charms of an undergrad, the other TA who enlists a student to teach him how to have fun again (or is it the same TA?).

The show -- as an experiment in online television -- is fairly interesting. Each scene is religiously accompanied by a brand-new song and a new set of characters (there are an impressive nine cast members, almost too many to keep straight).

"It was all very intentional," says "Graduates" creator Paul Gulyas, whose day job until recently was working at HBO Lab, the network's digital content division. "We needed to get into scenes as quickly as possible, and then get out of there [but still] keep things flowing."

Some might call this lousy filmmaking. But the constant switch-ups also seem to function as breaks for the audience. We're seeing new people and hearing new things every two or three minutes, so our brains never have time to get sick of anything.

Whether we have the time to get invested in the story is another question altogether. Even after a full episode of "Graduates," keeping the plot lines straight still requires some work, and getting excited about a possible second installment requires even more.

And if you're going to sit through a half-hour program, maybe you should just watch "The Office." On your TV.

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