How Much TV Commercial Length has Grown over the Years:

We all accept commercials as a necessary evil because they pay for the TV shows we watch. But, how much is commercial time is reasonable to accept? This question was answered for me while watching a 2004 episode of Star Trek Enterprise. The commercials came so often and lasted so long that is was almost impossible to maintain a sense of continuity with the show.

This situation got me wondering about how much the percentage of time given to a show is lost to commercials has increased over the years. Thanks to the availability of video recordings of past shows this was easy to determine. Scouring my video library I found shows ranging from 1952 to 2004. Combining these with currently aired shows provided the following:

1952 - 13 percent of the time was spent watching commercials (only 4 minutes out of every half hour!)

1958 - 13 percent

1961 - 18 percent

1963 - 20 percent

1964 - 18 percent

1976 - 17 percent

1977 - 18 percent

1981 - 18 percent

1990 - 22 percent

1994 - 24 percent

2001 - 30 percent

2004 - 30 percent

2006 - 30 percent

2007 - 30 percent

2008 - 32 percent

2009 - 30 percent

2010 - 32 percent

2011 - 31 percent

2012 - 33 percent

2013 - 32 percent

 
These were all for top rated, first airings of shows during prime time hours.

So, how did the show that kicked this little study off do? Would you believe that a full 35 percent of the air time given to Star Trek Enterprise in 2004 was sacrificed to commercials? And to make matters worse the end credits were pushed into the far right margin to make room for a side bar ad, the station logo was continually displayed in the lower right hand corner of the screen, and twice an annoying pop up add appeared in the left hand corner of the screen during the show. Taking these into account the total effective commercial time was crowding 38 percent. That means only 62 percent of the time was available to watch the show.

Another aspect of modern television that increases the commercial time, though not as distracting as actual commercials, is the "imbedded commercial." This is where a character uses or displays a product in such a way that the brand is clearly evident. Cars and soft drinks are the two most common users of this technique.

Dates are useful bookmarks of significant turning points in history. As far as commercials are concerned, February 2, 2006 will be an important and depressing day to remember. It was a Thursday night and I was watching Smallville when the imbedded commercial evolved from being covert (hidden) to overt (obvious.) Up to this time every imbedded commercial I'd seen was low-profile in nature: you had to look for it to see it. In this particular episode of Smallville, the object of the imbedded commercial was Acuview contact lenses. Instead of just discretely displaying the box, the actress held it up, label pointed directly at the camera, and said in a clear loud voice that Acuview contacts had solved a big problem for her. Only more disturbing than the clumsy and amateurish way it was done was the fact that this marked a major turning point in commercial television. If consumers let this catch on then such imbedded commercials could become so prevalent that the shows between commercials may soon become little more than multiple-product infomercials.

I kept an eye on the 2007-2008 season and am happy to report that the blatantly imbedded commercial did not proliferated. Yes, characters still park cars so that the make and model are clearly visible, but they don't use dialog to draw attention to it.

Correction: During a 2008 summer episode of Eureka, the lead star picked up a deodorant dispenser in such an awkward way to keep the label facing the camera that is was insultingly obvious it was a commercial. Worse still, this was a science fiction show in which the actor was caught in a repeating time loop. That's right, the viewer was forced to watch the clumsy bit of imbedded commercialization every time the time loop repeated.

 
Shows used for this page:

1952 - Dragnet
1958 - Peter Gunn
1961 - Mr. Ed
1963 - My Favorite Martian
1964 - The Addams Family, Bewitched, Gilligan's Island, Jonny Quest
1976 - The Muppet Show
1977 - MASH, Fantasy Island
1982 - Magnum, P.I.
1990 - Law & Order
1994 - Frasier
2001 - Frasier
2004 - Will and Grace
2006 - Smallville
2007 - Smallville, Heroes, House
2008 - Smallville, Eureka, Burn Notice, Bones
2009 - Smallville, House, Desperate Housewives, NCIS
2010 - Smallville, House, Two and a Half Men, Blue Bloods
2011 - Blue Bloods, House, Terra Nova, NCIS Los Angeles
2012 - Blue Bloods, NCIS, NCIS Los Angeles
2013 - The Blacklist, CSI, Law & Order: SVU

(Note: Percentage commercial time varies from show to show so those years with only a single show should be considered as having a large error bar.)

 
For those preferring a visual representation, here's a chart of the percent of time spent watching commercials versus the year of the show:

 

The graph suggests there are two independent commercial inflation periods. From 1952 to 1964 the percent increased very rapidly then suddenly leveled off at 18 percent. After 20 years at this level it began increasing again, but at a slightly slower rate. Although it's too soon to tell yet, it appears that starting around 2011 the percent commercial time may have hit another plateau at 32 percent. It will be interesting to see if this is the case. The next two years will tell.

Based on the 1978 to 2013 data, by 2030 40-percent of television time will be commercials. However, from 2004 to 2009 the percentage of commercial time has remained nearly constant at around 31 percent. It may be that the networks have discovered that adding more commercials drives people away from their shows. An interesting change in the timing of commercials took place in 2009. Previously, the longest commercial breaks took place at the top of the hour when programs changed. In Fall of 2009 I noticed that many programs jumped directly from the end of the previous program to the beginning of the next program. Networks may have found that doing so prevents people from changing channels.

An interesting data point is that the commercial time for NCIS, the number 1 rated show in 2009, was the lowest of the four shows measured. I had expected it to be the highest because I assumed time fees are highest for the top ranked show so the owning network would want to fit in as many commercials as possible.

One difficult issue with commercial time is how to account for station identification logos in the lower right corner of the screen and pop-up animated video commercials that appear in the lower right of screens. (I note that these never happen during commercials but only during shows.) Calculations show that the station identification logos take up 1-percent of the screen. Since this is a loss of viewable content I subtract it from the total show time. Animated pop-up video commercials in the lower left corner are so large, many time 25-percent of the entire screen area, that they completely distract a viewer's attention from the show in progress. For this reason I count them as full commercials and their on-screen time is subtracted from the total show time. I find this last intrusion the most offensive of all because the networks are sacrificing one show to plug another. Additionally, rather than an extension to an existing commercial break they represent yet another break in the continuity of the show. Consider, which commercial break profile creates the least distraction: a single 10-minute commercial or 10, 1-minute commercials spread out through the entire show? Obviously, many short commercials are more distracting. I predict pop-ups are going to be more common because they don't give the viewer the opportunity to click away or do something else during them. They also can't be fast-forwarded through if the show was recorded. I've seen a few that had their own musical sound track making them even harder to ignore. There may come a time when a large section of the screen is covered with a windows showing constantly playing commercials.

(Note: I'm happy to report that none of the three shows used for the 2013 data point showed any pop-ups.)

 

SHAME ON YOU, FOOD NETWORK!!!

On Sunday, 11 August, 2013, during an episode of Chopped, the Food Network committed one of the worst on-show commercial plugs of all time. During almost the entire show the Food Network displayed a live timer covering up all of the screen's lower right corner, counting down the minutes and seconds to the following show. While the timer only covered up 10-percent of the screen its nature made it almost impossible to focus on the show being aired.

 

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