My mother was in her 20s the first time she saw a TV commercial.
At first, they baffled her. At some dramatic moment, the TV… abruptly started talking about a frivolous consumer product. What a bizarre way to tell stories.
Having watched lots of television growing up (I watched far more television as a child than as a teenager or adult), I took it for granted that commercials broke up shows.
In some DVDs of shows originally made for broadcast TV, it’s obvious where the commercial breaks were written into the script. If I’m watching such DVDs with my dad, he’ll say something like, “Commercial time – not!” They are artifacts of commercial breaks woven so deeply into the show’s fabric that, even when they are in a new context without commercial breaks, they shape the viewers’ experience.
The term ‘soap opera’ comes from the commercials aimed at homemakers. The genre’s name has outlived the original marketing to prospective soap buyers (though I suppose soap operas still come with the occasional ad for soap).
At least the old broadcast TV shows accommodated commercial breaks in the script so they did not feel random (indeed, viewers can feel them even when there are no commercials). Not so with YouTube.
The method I used to suppress YouTube ads finally broke (I’m surprised YouTube let it work for so long; a loophole which allows people to watchYouTube ad-free without payment does not serve their interests). Now that I’m taking part in a Mandarin listening challenge, guess where I can get lots of interesting Mandarin-language audio content for free? YouTube, that’s right. Right now I’m watching The Story of Yanxi Palace, the first multi-episode TV show I’ve started watching since I lost the ability to suppress YouTube ads. The ads usually come at some interval of 5 minutes, sometimes in an inappropriate moment. The lack of smooth-commercial-break-transitions and the jarringly-out-of context ads help me appreciate how my mother felt the first time she saw a TV commercial. (YouTuve algorithms are bad at choosing ads for someone watching a Chinese palace intrigue drama in the United States).
If I were watching these TV shows in an ad-free format, I would not notice scripted-in commercial breaks because they don’t exist. In this sense, these TV shows are more flexible; they adapt well to ad-free viewing.
Lately many people have been talking about the relationship between ads, content, and algorithms on YouTube. This is merely the latest chapter in the history of advertising interacting with TV content. That, in turn, is part of the greater saga of storytellers’ economic supporters shaping the stories which are told.