IT HAPPENS when you're hooked. Those who buy and sell television commercials as well as schedule TV promotions plan it that way. The more viewers are glued to a particular program the more likely they may be to sit through an onslaught of sales pitches that increasingly interrupt the plot.
That's the point of bunching up commercials in popular TV shows like ABC's Desperate Housewives, where one ad buyer said "there's tremendous attention, passion, and a halo effect where your commercial might actually resonate." But advertisers and the networks eager to accommodate them are rapidly ruining a good thing.
Even loyal TV fans are becoming fed up with commercial bombardments that weave in and out of a story line struggling to unfold around a clutter of ads.
While persistent commercial breaks have been the bane of television viewers ever since the days of black-and-white sets, the ads seem to saturate the tube today, stealing more time from regular programming to squeeze in just one more commercial. A typical "one-hour" network show that used to run roughly 48 minutes in the 1980s, with time out for commercials, now clocks in at less than 42 minutes in a format loaded with ads.
ABC, which is apparently leading the pack in commercial excess, has notably changed the construction of its prime-time dramas to fit in more commercials or promos. Instead of four acts in each episode there are now six, with the first one hooking the audience through the longest stretch of compelling action.
Must-see television means must-see commercials and more of them. And to make sure viewers don't wander off, networks have adopted so-called "seamless" programming from show to show, meaning the next program begins at, say, 8:59, instead of 9 o'clock, to keep viewers from switching channels.
The higher the show's ratings, the higher the demand for limited commercial time at higher network prices. Thirty seconds of advertising during Desperate Housewives costs ad buyers between $500,000 and $600,000.
It's a win-win for everyone except the poor sap at home hopelessly hooked to the storytelling momentum of a favorite show despite the numerous commercial distractions. But he takes the bait week after week, sitting through a string of jarring, annoying 30-second interruptions that break into the storyline just minutes after the previous batch.
Now that's reality TV.