When commercials are a good thing

For most TV-watchers, with most TV shows, there’s nothing more maddening than the commercial break. Nothing ruins a solemn shot of a character struggling with deep emotional turmoil like “HEAD ON APPLY DIRECTLY TO FOREHEAD.”(Well, with the possible exception of the jaunty credits music at the end of an especially somber West Wing.)

Yet, like a lot of 24-year-olds these days, I do 95 percent of my television viewing online — and commercial-free. The lack of commercials improves many shows. It allows us to sink into the TV’s world, with no interruption.

But in some cases — and this is rare — the commercials improve the show. And I’m not just talking about shows that have winking “after this break" meta-jokes.

Onion SportsDome is a parody of SportsCenter, the hyperactive, graphic-heavysports shows on ESPN. And it’s hilarious. But at 22 minutes, it’s exhausting. Watching it straight through, ad-free, was almost obnoxious. Another absurd sports story? We get it, we get it.

But when I watched the second episode, I took breaks — about three of them — between segments. I read other articles from the Internet. I did some writing. And what do you know? I enjoyed it more.

Onion SportsDome is essentially just a series of approximately three-minute Onion videos put together. It’s rare you’d sit down and watch seven Onion videos in a row without breaks. The breaks help.

Parody, by its very nature, benefits from short runtimes. (It’s why Childrens Hospital works well at 11 minutes but would grow obnoxious at twice that.) Commercials can give us a breather between non-stop snark and laughter.

In other words, I recommend watching Onion SportsDome with commercials.

Last year, the New York Times ran an article citing two studies arguing that commercials make TV more enjoyable.

“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 newresearch. “When I tell people this, they just kind of stare at me, in disbelief. The findings are simultaneously implausible and empirically coherent.”

Basically, the New York Times explains, we adapt to pleasure. After 10 minutes of enjoyable television, we begin to return to our equilibrium. The same is true for massages and, presumably, hot-tubbing.

Commercials, for all their annoying qualities, reset this. We start enjoying the show more when we return; it never lets us get comfortable with our happiness. Viewers who watched Taxi with commercials, one study found, enjoyed it more than people who watched it uninterrupted.

It would be interesting if the same held true for serialized dramas. The edict to put five or six commercial breaks into an hour-long show has long bothered showrunners. Most have requirementsto try to build in a cliffhanger at each commercial break.

In a interview with Maureen Ryan and Ryan McGee, Shawn Ryan (the showrunner of the Shield, Terriers, and soon, Chicago Code) discusses the frustration showrunners have regarding required commercial breaks:

“I hate, hate, hate the six-act structure,” Ryan says. Too many commercial breaks the writers have to wrangle. “You’re expected to come out with these act-out moments. … I don’t think it’s enough time to build up to moments of tension. ... There’s always going to be one or two moments where you leave the viewer feeling ‘meh’ about the episodes.”

But he goes on to describe that some shows (he cites Buffy the VampireSlayer) featured masterful act breaks. Every break went out on a solid cliffhanger or a philosophical note. Commercials can give us time to think or time to bite our fingernails wondering how, exactly, MacGyver's going to get out of this one. 

Mad Men purposefully doesn’t write for act breaks. The commercial breaks, as a result, are jarring. Ignoring the commercial break is a mistake.

A great TV writer can use a commercial break in the same way a poet uses a line break — to set apart a moment, to inspire rumination, to create anticipation. A great writer's way of saying “we’ll return, right after these messages” can lead to a poignant pause indeed.