No More Historically-Normal Commercial Loads

This was announced unofficially a while ago, but it’s now more or less official (and therefore okay for me to mention a second time on this blog) that Fox won’t be bringing back “Remote-Free TV,” their experiment with letting Fringe and Dollhouse do longer episodes and selling fewer commercials at higher prices. Maybe neither of those shows were, in retrospect, the best vehicles for this experment: Fringe has quite a bit of padding and may actually work better when cut back to 41 minutes, and Dollhouse has figured out how to make decent use of the extra time, it’s not successful enough to pull in the big advertising money.

The experiment basically worked, in a sense, since it demonstrated that people really are more likely to sit through the commercials if there aren’t so many of them. A comment at the subscription-blocked Wall Street Journal article explains why that is: “The commercials were so short I couldn’t get up and do anything. I watched the commercial to keep from missing the show. If Fox increases the commercial length, I will be able to get up and do chores and miss the commercials.” When you only have a minute or so of commercials per break, people without DVRs are held captive, and even people with DVRs might find it less of a bother to just watch a couple of commercials than to skip them. With the marathon commercial breaks, everybody has enough time to skip the commercials entirely.

I said before and will say again that the shows that really need extra time are half-hour shows. 40-42 minutes isn’t that bad a length for an hour-long drama, particularly one that does self-contained episodes; at that length, you can make the show lean and fast and avoid the padding that longer shows used to have to resort to. (HBO or BBC shows are a different kettle of fish; HBO shows are less frenetic and fast than network shows because they have long running times and no act breaks. Network shows have to be fast-moving and end every act on a suspenseful note, so with longer running times, they sometimes wind up packing most of the storytelling into a few key moments, and putting in filler — longer credit sequences, stock footage, long exterior shots — at less crucial moments.) Maybe Fox would have been better off giving the extra time to a comedy and seeing how that went, but they didn’t have any decent non-animated comedies this year, so that really wasn’t an option even if they considered it. Too bad, though; if the experiment had caught on, imagine what 30 Rock could do with just one extra minute — they’d be able to put in lots of the pauses, reactions and little funny moments that every comedy show has to leave out just for the sake of getting the story told in 20 minutes.