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HOT SPOT: Fewer commercials! Brilliant!
September 10, 2008  | By Diane Werts
fringe fox.jpgSo how fast did Fringe fly by? Know why? Judging by Tuesday night's premiere, it's not the show itself, whether you love it (I'm nuts for twitchy star Anna Torv) or don't (all that pseudo-science can get tiresome).

It's the commercials. Or lack thereof. Fox is trying short commercial breaks in this show every week -- as short as 60 seconds, instead of the 4-minute drag-on breaks to which we've become accustomed. Or unaccustomed, as steadily sliding network ratings might indicate.

In other words, don't try leaving the room during Fringe for eats or other needs. Don't even try flipping through channels. Fox warns you ahead of time the break will only be 60 or 90 seconds, and they mean it. We quick-flipped to catch a baseball score during one Fringe break, and got back after the show had already resumed. Think we'll do that again?

Very cagey, that Fox. And very smart. I've been saying for years that networks should try shorter breaks, even if it means jacking up individual ad prices. Which they should be able to do. Because viewers will be paying attention. Which we haven't been. The networks' ever-longer commercial loads have trained us to basically take an intermission at each break, strolling to the lobby to load up on treats or visit the facilities or maybe even leave the theater altogether if the attraction is not so hot. Which it often isn't.

Fringe is the way TV used to be. One-minute breaks were standard through the '60s and beyond. When I was a kid, I'd try to make a potty stop during commercial breaks, and couldn't get back before the show resumed, even on a dead run. I learned not to leave. Now this may not be the toilet training my mom had in mind, but it sure did get me hooked on the medium of television. And kept me hooked. The shows sucked me in and held on till they were through with me.

Fringe proves it's possible for the networks to do this again. Of course it helps if the show is worth watching. (Dear Fox: Do not try this with Wednesday's premiere of Do Not Disturb.) But it's simply a blessed relief to not be bombarded with blaring ad after blaring ad, all jacking up the volume and flashing-image onslaught like some combat attack, so desperate to be noticed. They might instead try being the only ad, or one of two, in a break so brief we almost can't stop watching the screen.

The Fringe premiere kept us glued through the plot's weird conniptions and weak spots -- a shrewd tactic, actually, when all is not as easy to digest as it might be. Imagine flash-fast breaks in those moments when you were ready to give up on the conniptions of Lost or Heroes, or even ER. Smart, also, to pull us deeper into the personal dramas of something like Grey's Anatomy.

How does The Sopranos' spell hold up with commercial breaks on A&E? What about the deadly dealings on Dexter during its CBS run? Part of the appeal of those shows on premium cable has been their ability to fully enmesh us in their particular worlds, without pauses to assault the senses with pitches for car leases, trendy electronics and, um, 4-hour erections.

It'll be interesting to see if all the networks, or even just retro-innovator Fox, can make the shorter-break strategy work longer-term and more broadly across the schedule. Fox promises to try the same with Dollhouse, the midseason secret-agent show coming from genre king Joss Whedon. Genre shows lend themselves to the tactic, thanks to their skew toward compatible ads from theatrical films, video games and other products also needing to immerse in distinct moods. Something tells me shampoo makers and department stores will be a harder sell.

So we may yet revert to that harder sell. Fringe is either the new frontier or just fun while it lasts.

(If you missed the extended Fringe premiere, Fox repeats it this Sunday, Sept. 14, 8-9:35 p.m. ET, with the same low commercial load.)




Madeline said:

Hi David. I have to say, I seem to always agree with your TV choices, but this one, I disagree with. I watched Fringe last night. Although the cute little time outs (commercials) in between were different, the show itself is pretty cheesy. Some of the characters' lines made me laugh outright. This will not be a show I will watch again. I was really sure I would enjoy it, given the fact that I have agreed with your opinion more often than not. But I'll pass on this one. Have a great day.

Diane said:

Diane (not David) responds:
I suspect that most of those lines were actually intended to make us laugh out loud -- mostly Daddy Genius' nutso comments about cows and cooking LSD. At least they didn't distract me from the show (which I think has entirely other problems it still needs to work on).

Rich B. said:

Seems to me that there were shorter commercial breaks but more of them. I swear there were multiple breaks between 9 and 9:15 pm. They may have only lasted a minute, but I'm not sure that I preferred that....

Jon88 said:

I was watching DVR-live (time-shifting, starting about 20 minutes after 8), and so was curiously *more* aware of the accelerated pace of ad breaks in the second half of the broadcast -- I was reaching for the remote noticeably often. That the premiere was about 15 minutes longer than it needed to be also was clear, as I caught myself checking the clock to see if this thing would ever end. Yet I'll be watching it again; I have more tolerance for sci-fi programs than for, say, motorcycle gang shows (once was enough).

Diane said:

Hi, Jon --
Just to clarify, there weren't actually more commercials in the 'Fringe' premiere than any other. The pilot ran considerably longer than a standard pilot, over 80 minutes vs. 45-ish.

JimBo said:

Not sure Fringe and Fox should get much credit for this -- since The Shield on Fox sister network did the same thing in its premiere a couple weeks earlier. Also noticed it looks like this may continue on The Shield with Bud as a major sponsor for the final season of the show. Then again, since I watch most everything with the DVR and zip through the ads, I didn't notice any difference either way.

Diane said:

You're right, JimBo -- but Fox has announced that it plans to run the entire season of Fringe (and, later, Dollhouse) with the shorter ad breaks. This could be a real breakthrough because it's a broadcast network, which has more industry influence, and might well change things on other channels, too.

FX, in the past at least, has done limited interruption as a stunt for season premieres on series like The Shield, Nip/Tuck and The Riches -- but not for subsequent episodes.

This final season of The Shield is so intense, though -- I've seen 8 of the 10 episodes already -- that I really hope you're right about the limited commercials. I'll check with the network on that.

Jon88 said:

"Just to clarify, there weren't actually more commercials in the 'Fringe' premiere than any other. The pilot ran considerably longer than a standard pilot, over 80 minutes vs. 45-ish."

And just to clarify back atcha, my reference to watching the clock and 15 minutes too long had to do with the program itself, not the ads. My inability to find a fast-forwarding rhythm because of the eccentric frequency and length of ad breaks is distinct from the dragginess of the second half of the pilot.

Subjectively yours,
Jon (ps: e-mail link at Off the Wall led to a bounce)

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