After These Messages, We'll Be Riiight Baaaack

Okay, this is an interesting idea from Fox, home of the gimmick:

Fox Broadcasting Co. is shaking up the commercial TV model with “Remote-Free TV.”

At its upfront presentation Thursday, the network announced it will air two new drama series, J.J. Abrams’ “Fringe” and Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse,” with dramatically reduced commercial breaks.

“It’s a simple concept and potentially revolutionary,” Fox Entertainment Chairman Peter Liguori said. “We’re going to have less commercials, less promotional time, and less reason for viewers to use the remote. We’re going to redefine the viewing experience.”

Both “Fringe” and “Dollhouse” would have network commercial loads of about five minutes per hour, about half the usual. The commercial pods would also be shorter and they would have about half the promo load as well.

In an interview after the presentation, Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly acknowledged that “Remote-Free TV” was a risk but there needed to be a “paradigm shift” in network TV.

Cutting down commercials will make the two already pricey sci-fi series even more expensive as they have to produce longer episodes. To offset that and the reduced commercial inventory, the network is planning to charge advertisers a premium.

Let’s zero in on the most important phrase in there: “Longer episodes.” What they’re talking about here is putting out these two shows, Fringe and Dollhouse, at the length that was once standard for any hour-long show. With a combination of commercials and promos, the running time of a current hour-long show is about 42 minutes. Cut out half the commercials, maybe reduce the number of promos, and the length of an episode would probably be something between 48 and 50 minutes — which happens to be the standard length that existed from the ’50s through the ’80s.

I should note that the rapidly shrinking running times, which I often complain about, were not just dictated by the need to fit in more commercials. There’s a clue in that article, where it says “cutting down commercials will make the two already pricey sci-fi series even more expensive as they have to produce longer episodes.” Episode running times didn’t only shrink because of the insanely expanding commercial time, but because TV episodes were getting more expensive to produce and a 42-minute episode costs less to produce than one with six or seven more minutes of content. If you look at older TV episodes you’ll often be able to spot moments where the producers put in filler in order to save money, like the use of stock footage or exterior shots or cars driving aimlessly along a highway. (My favourite “Let’s pad this show out to 48 minutes” moment: there’s an episode from the first season of The A-Team where the first three minutes consist of a car chase from a previous episode, with new voice-overs dubbed in to make it sound like it’s a different car chase.) Still, at some point the episodes got too short for their own good, and now most shows wind up with a ton of deleted scenes in the effort to get the show down to time — in other words, they’re not actually saving money, they’re just cutting the expensive stuff they already shot.

Will this “fewer commercials” idea work? I hope it does, because I think that some of the problems of network television today are related to the too-short running times. People used to point to many reasons why premium cable could do things that network TV couldn’t, but they rarely pointed to one of the biggest reasons of all: premium-cable episodes are longer than network TV episodes, and therefore have more time for pauses, character development, and all the other stuff you can’t put in if you have to chop the show down to 42 minutes (minus 30 seconds for the main title and another 30 seconds for the closing credits, and also some time for the “previously on…” segments). Comedies especially would benefit from longer episodes, since 21 minutes just is not enough time to tell one story, let alone the two or three you get in most comedies. But on the other hand, Dollhouse and Fringe don’t seem like the type of shows that are guaranteed, or even particularly likely, to become big mainstream hits, and if the network takes a hit on one or both of them because of the need to charge more money to advertisers (which they may not be willing to pay for a “cult”-y show), it may sour them on the idea of reduced commercial time. Which would be too bad, because it’s high on my list of things that could save TV.

Dollhouse I think looks like a show that will benefit from a reduced number of commercial breaks, because Joss Whedon always writes in the once-traditional four act structure, and his shows really won’t work if they have to include eight or nine commercial breaks. (Whedon is one of those writers who often plots an episode around the act breaks, always making sure each act leads up to a slam-bang twist at the end.)

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