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Okay, I’ll admit it: It’s perfectly possible that I was spoiled as a kid, growing up with the BBC and not having commercial breaks in every single television show I watched (Also, having Doctor Who, but that’s another thing altogether). Nonetheless, the news that PBS will add ad breaks every 15 minutes to its programming is something that I find curiously depressing.
I’m not depressed that PBS has suddenly “sold out” – As I understand it, the ad breaks will be “non-commercial,” as someone familiar with the decision that spoke to the Hollywood Reporter explained, offering up station idents, sponsor messages or other content that already appears on PBS between shows instead of regular advertising, as on other television networks – but, instead, that the decision has apparently been made that the form of broadcast television has somehow been quietly declared the way everything should be from now on. Yay for short attention spans, right?
If I’m understanding correctly, the decision to move idents and sponsor messages from in between shows to in the middle of shows comes because audiences weren’t sticking around from show to show. Chief Programming Executive for PBS, John F. Wilson, said that “It’s almost as if someone pulled the fire alarm and they scrambled for the exits” between shows, although PBS isn’t releasing any viewing figures for comparison with other networks on the subject. Thing is, as much as I love PBS – I genuinely do; Masterpiece and Nova are two unguilty pleasures – I have never, ever considered it as a cohesive network, programmingwise. The idea that I would settle in for an evening just watching PBS seems… unexpected, and unlikely, much in the same way that I would do that for any other network, even the ones that run shows together without ads inbetween (Fox, for example).
Further, the idea that removing breaks between shows will reduce drop-off seems based on an idea of an audience that feels curiously outdated; with TiVo and other DVRs, aren’t viewers becoming increasingly more likely just to pick and choose what they’re planning to watch, instead of become acolytes of a particular network? Perhaps the plan is that running promos of other, similar, shows during favorites will introduce programming the viewer wouldn’t have otherwise been aware of, but I can’t help but feel as if all it’ll really do is ruin the flow of the show people wanted to watch, and give them more reasons to stop watching altogether.
Adding breaks within PBS shows feels like the end of some kind of era, and the formalization of the notion that all television has to be built as modular pieces, working around the needs of the broadcaster instead of any true artistic purpose. It’ll be interesting to see how it affects the shows, whether the tightening of structure is for the good (Some PBS shows are flabby, let’s face it) or disruptive, or whether we’ll even really notice the differences. I can’t pretend that I don’t wish PBS would remain protected by “viewers like you,” and not have to worry about ratings or the real world, but that’s not the case. What I am wishing is that this isn’t the start of a slow move towards “regular” advertising making its way onto the station… although I worry that that, too, could be an ambitious dream doomed to an unfortunate end.