Ads are the eternal burden of commercial television. The medium’s revenue stream doesn’t make sense without them, but how many times have you heard someone say, “Boy, I just love watching commercials”?
As television’s budgets grow bigger and bigger — and audiences become more and more splintered — there’s more pressure than ever on advertising to bring in as much cash as possible. That’s caused running times to slowly shrink over the past 30 years. As recently as the 1990s, an hour-long TV episode ran close to 45 minutes without ads. Now it’s lucky to crest 42.
And ad-supported TV networks are aware of how much ad-free services like HBO, Netflix, and Hulu (at least if you pay extra for the ad-free option) have changed the equation for many viewers. As anyone who primarily consumes scripted TV via streaming services or DVR but then watches a live sporting event can tell you, those forced ad breaks can seem extra jarring.
But there has to be a middle ground between the heavy ad loads networks are carrying right now and a completely ad-free experience. And if that middle ground can be found, it stands to reason it will be found on cable, where your local cable provider pays a few cents per subscriber to each cable network it carries for the rights to include said cable networks in its subscription packages.
As it happens, there’s one network executive looking for that middle ground right now — it’s just not clear whether he’ll get anybody else to sign on.
Turner Networks is aiming for a ratio of fewer ads to more content
If you watched the debut of TNT’s new drama Good Behavior on Tuesday, November 15, you might have noticed something: The number of commercials that aired during its running time was dramatically lower when compared with the typical number that airs during a normal TV episode. Earlier this year, the same was true of ad time per episode for TNT’s summer series, the underrated, under-the-radar crime drama Animal Kingdom.
I watched Animal Kingdom in an on-demand marathon, where I couldn’t fast-forward past ads, and the difference was stark. Both Good Behavior and Animal Kingdom boast around 50 to 52 minutes of content per episode with around eight to 10 minutes of ads — that’s typically 10 minutes more content per episode than most shows on other ad-supported networks.
It’s easy to see how the extra time can be either a blessing or a curse. In the case of Animal Kingdom, at least, it allowed a complicated show with a lot of characters more room to breathe. Good Behavior, in the episodes I’ve seen, doesn’t seem to know what to do with it.
“Ten minutes is a long time for a storyteller,” TNT and TBS head Kevin Reilly, who spearheaded this idea, told me at a Turner event in July. “I’ve worked on plenty of good shows where people have said, ‘Can we cut this short? There’s too much fat.’ It has to sustain. Longer is not [always] better.”
Intriguingly, this isn’t the first time Reilly has been involved with just such a gambit. During the 2008-’09 TV season, Fox, where Reilly used to work, sold fewer ads at a higher premium for sci-fi series Fringe and Dollhouse, once again resulting in episodes that were about 10 minutes longer, with fewer commercials. But the idea largely withered on the vine. Neither Fringe nor Dollhouse was a major hit, and other networks didn’t sign on to the idea. By the 2009-’10 season, Fox’s shows were back to typical running times.
Reilly hopes that this time, TNT can point the way forward for other networks. Right now the network is trapped in a weird in-between zone, where its dramas that debuted before 2016 — shows like Major Crimes and The Last Ship — still air with a typical number of ads, while its shows from 2016 and beyond will have the decreased ad loads.
But as the older shows fade away, the newer ones will become the network’s standard-bearers, and the idea of TNT as the home of fewer commercials might — might — take root. Indeed, the show that spawned this idea, the network’s upcoming adaptation of Caleb Carr’s popular novel The Alienist, will be one of the highest-profile projects for the network since Reilly took over in late 2014, and might bring even more attention to his lower ad loads initiative.
While Reilly admits that it will take time for TV storytellers to know what to do with the extra real estate — most TV fans can think of a favorite cable or streaming show that suffers from flabby, unfocused storytelling due to having too much time to play with — he likes tackling that problem, as opposed to trying to keep viewers hooked through ad after ad after ad.
“I’d rather take the challenge of trying to create more compelling content,” he says.
But can Turner get anybody else in the industry to sign on?
Reilly has a long history of launching bold new initiatives in hopes of shaking up a TV industry that has been largely the same for decades. At Fox, he briefly launched a war against pilot season — which the network completely abandoned after he left in May 2014. And, as mentioned, Fox tried the lower ad loads idea in 2008, only to back off.
The problem is simple: For decreased ad loads to make financial sense, a network has to charge higher rates for the fewer ads it does sell. If the show the network is selling against is a massive hit, this approach can pay off, but it can also pay off if having fewer ads means fewer viewers fast-forward through those ads when they’re watching the show on DVR. (As I hinted above, the commercial breaks on Animal Kingdom were far less painful to sit through when they contained two or three ads instead of six or seven.)
But an advertiser isn’t going to pay higher rates forever, especially if the shows it’s paying higher rates for are merely average performers like Animal Kingdom. There are plenty of other networks selling ad space for less money — networks where viewers might fast-forward through ads, but at least those ads didn’t cost a premium.
So Reilly doesn’t just need to prove this idea can work at TNT. He needs to prove it can work everywhere. And that’s the biggest hurdle to the future of his plan.
“Change is hard. There’s a lot of resistance, because either it’s habit or ingrained processes. But there’s moments when there are tectonic shifts. Right now more than ever before,” he says, optimistically.
“[Turner was] the first to get out and talk about ad loads, but certainly nobody [in the industry] said, ’That’s ridiculous!’ There was an understanding that that’s something that should be discussed.” Still, he sighs, “The truth is we can’t move forward alone.”
Reilly says he’s seen industry interest in what he’s doing, and that others have thought about copying his model. But it’s hard to take him at his word when TNT remains, essentially, alone in this plan.
Even in cases where lower ad loads composed of higher-priced ads would be easier to pull off, Reilly’s peers aren’t exactly rushing to experiment. Think of AMC’s The Walking Dead, a hit show if ever there was one. Its highly anticipated season seven premiere, featuring the resolution to a big cliffhanger, could have easily tacked on an extra 10 minutes of story to its typical 42-minute runtime, and aired fewer commercials. But even in this very special, one-time-only case — where AMC surely could have found a sole sponsor for the premiere’s broadcast — the network both expanded the episode and sold a normal number of ads, letting it run nearly 10 minutes past when it would otherwise end.
For his part, Reilly says TNT’s plan is worth it, if only to prove the value is there. “I believe there’s a lot of interest in the rest of the industry wanting to adopt it. … That doesn’t mean everybody has to shift overnight.”
I do hope Reilly succeeds. The experience of watching Animal Kingdom with fewer commercials was dramatically different enough to keep me engaged in a series that had some rough patches near the beginning, whereas I might’ve been more likely to walk away if there were too many ads to sit through early on. And commercial breaks have long been a hassle for showrunners trying to generate intrigue and tension, especially as they’ve been forced to incorporate more and more of them.
“If [TNT and TBS are] the only two networks doing it,” Reilly says, “it’s not going to change the industry, and we’re going to have to go back. But I believe that everybody knows it’s time to make that change.”