On time.com, my colleague Sean Gregory has a fascinating article on a study purporting to show that—contrary to nearly every opinion ever expressed about commercial interruptions ever—ad breaks actually enhance enjoyment of TV shows, at least among younger viewers. And not because they have small bladders and need the pee breaks.
You should read the whole piece, but in a nutshell researchers credit a phenomenon call “adaptation”—in essence, a pleasurable experience becomes less pleasurable the longer it lasts. The breaks, by busting up the pleasure, make viewers hapier when the show returns. (Much in the same way that whacking your thumb with a hammer makes you happier when you stop?) The researchers showed subjects (NYU students) episodes of Taxi, both with commercials and without, and found the students who saw the ads enjoyed the show better.
I don’t question the finding, but I do wonder about the reason. It may be, for instance, that one reason that network-TV shows play better with commercials is that they are, literally, written to accomodate commercials. A network drama, for instance, is broken down into “acts,” which tend to conclude with mini-cliffhangers or moments of heightened emotion that are meant to keep the audience from flipping channels during the Burger King spots.
If a show is not structured with ad breaks in mind—like HBO and Showtime series—would it have the same benefit? I don’t know. The researchers tested this question somewhat by screening scenes from Bollywood musicals; they found that high-dramatic-intensity scenes did not benefit from interruption; duller scenes did. But I’d have been curious to see a comparison between, say, The Sopranos as aired by HBO and as chopped up by A&E.
In any case, in these tough times for ad-supported TV, anything the networks can use any news they can get that supports the power of advertising—and that discourages ad-skipping. Get rid of your TiVo before it makes you hate television forever!