The Art of the Commercial Break

Now that I’ve switched from Comcast to AT&T, and seem to only watch pre-recorded programs off the DVR, I’ve become a little more attuned to the importance of the commercial break. We may say we hate it, but when it’s gone, or artificially eliminated rather, it’s hard to shake the feeling that something important is missing. And sure enough, in  two new studies reviewed by The New York Times, researchers who study consumer behavior argue that, in fact, “interrupting an experience, whether dreary or pleasant, can make it significantly more intense”.

“The punch line is that commercials make TV programs more enjoyable to watch. Even bad commercials,” said Leif Nelson, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of California, San Diego, and a co-author of the new research. “When I tell people this, they just kind of stare at me, in disbelief. The findings are simultaneously implausible and empirically coherent.”

Whether or not Nelson’s findings are intuitive on some level — our anticipation for the commercial break to end does, after all, reinforce its existence — it’s the interpretation that really matters. Now, one could of course read these results as evidence of some ‘deep’ psychological function that thrives on “interruption”, which seems to be Nelson’s perspective, but even if this is the case, generally speaking, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the TV drama itself is written for commercial breaks — which is to say, the commercial’s interruption is less random and disruptive than strategic and productive.

As a matter of fact, every guide to writing for TV spends considerable time discussing how to account for the commercial break in the structure of the plot and timing of events. (Which perhaps explains why the researchers found little variation in results across all kinds of content. In this regard, the interruption is hardly an interruption.) So, technically speaking, the commercial break itself is built into, on a deeper level than otherwise suggested, the story it’s supposed to ‘interrupt’.

In this guide, for instance, Evan Smith devotes a chapter to negotiating the distinction between ‘dramatic structure’ and ‘broadcast format’. The tension between them — irreconcilable, to be sure — in many ways reproduces the familiar struggle between commercial conditions and artistic endeavors (–which despite their presumed animosity must ultimately come together). As Smith puts it, rather succinctly:

“Here is where things get confusing. The timing of commercial breaks does not necessarily coincide with the transitions between threedramatic acts in a typical episode.” (99)

As TV watchers, we know this intuitively. How many times have we seen an old movie written in anticipation of its eventual consignment to TV, only to find that the commercial break structure they expected has since changed? The awkward flash-fades to black peppered throughout (almost unnoticeably), followed by cuts to a resumed action that the writers clearly wanted us to have to anticipate, are in this regard strange, archaeological signs of a former age, not evidence of a permanent, evolutionary form of ‘interruption’.

It’s this kind of subtle, almost meaningless, dissonance that reveals just how conventional, and non-interruptive, the commercial break really is. There’s an art to it, after all. So much so that it’s practically a credit and a compliment to the writers that their work is now attributed to our brains instead of theirs.

Leave a Reply