Brought to You With Limited Commercial Interruption: The temporalities of online TV
by John-Paul Kelly — University of Royal Holloway
February 18, 2009 – 00:01
For the season seven premiere of 24, Hulu.com offered visitors to the site a significant degree of control over their advertising experience. Viewers could either watch four thirty-second spots (similar to the structure of a standard broadcast albeit with shorter intermissions) or they could chose to begin with a two-minute trailer for the feature film Taken  in exchange for a “commercial free” episode. Unsurprisingly Hulu reported that 88% of viewers chose the latter. Network broadcasters have similarly begun to adapt their commercial strategies — perhaps partly in response to increasing online competition. Fox, who incidentally have an invested interested in Hulu.com via parent company News Corp., recently experimented with shorter ad breaks — dubbed “Remote-Free TV” — during episodes of Fringe and Dollhouse.
It’s particularly interesting to note that Hulu trialled their new advertorial strategy around a show fundamentally defined by its “real-time” narrative premise. Ideally a series such as 24 should benefit most from a commercial free viewing, yet its principal design for broadcast TV means that its narrative rhythm is always at the mercy of the inevitable ad break. Fans will be aware of the four-minute commercial gaps that punctuate the narrative of 24 — even more so when watching a downloaded copy or a DVD boxset of the programme in which the onscreen clock appears to leap forward in time. Yet unlike DVD boxsets or pirated downloads, legitimate online distribution generally still relies upon commercial support.
The season seven premiere of 24 illustrates one way in which online distribution may potentially complicate the established temporalities of broadcast TV. It’s not just the possibility for viewers to reorganise the sequence of their ad breaks that should interest us, but there are several other significant differences between online and broadcast “temporalities”. For instance, online distribution is exempt from the strict twenty-two-minute per segment rule that guides the format of broadcast TV. An episode of NBC’s The Office recently appeared on Hulu as the “producer’s cut” with a runtime exceeding the original broadcast slot. And contrary to Baldwin’s promise in the accompanying clip that online TV is available “anytime, anywhere”, and despite the vast archival potential of digital media, distributors such as Hulu.com appear to be reinforcing the transitory nature of the broadcast text by circulating shows for a limited period only.
As consumers become accustomed to the shorter commercial breaks of online TV, it seems possible that more broadcasters will follow Fox’s “Remote-Free TV” example. The implications of such a shift would be quite apparent; fewer, shorter commercial breaks = longer shows, with a more sustained narrative pace.
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