Brought to You With Limited Commercial Interruption: The temporalities of online TV

Curator's Note

For the season seven premiere of 24, 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 [2008] 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 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 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.


Thanks, JP, for a really interesting post. I'm curious about how Hulu's flexible advertising encounter options are made economically sustainable. On TV, most ads are still sold upfront, with networks selling packages of ad time that promise to pair ads with programming reaching a given sponsor's desired target audience. Of course, that audience is an imaginary construct, which may or may not actually watch the program, which often necessitates a re-negotiation between advertisers and networks if the latter's speculations prove wrong. While Hulu could certainly estimate the number of viewers that will watch the 24 premiere online and quote ad prices accordingly, can they also predict what percentage will select the front-end 2-minute trailer over the 4 30-second commercial interruptions? Are their prices tiered according to actual viewer choices (in other words, would the producers of the Taken promo paid less for the spot if only 44% of viewers had selected that option)? 


I'm also struck by Hulu's replication of the old school windowing logic that value is still accrued through exclusivity and time-limits, except here perhaps inverted, where it is the viewer who pays more (rather than the licensor who pays less) the further down the distribution path they choose to encounter the program. I am assuming that the next available option for viewing the directors cut of The Office after its availability for free has expired is to rent or purchase the DVD or i-Tunes download. Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible perhaps exemplifies this inverse windowing best, where the free episodes were available for a very limited time, then sold as a package on i-Tunes for $5.99 (I believe the entire miniseries is once again available for free on the Dr. Horrible website, but the director's commentary version must be purchased).

Thanks for a really engaging post JP. I think you point to some key questions in understanding the relationship between emerging economic practices in online distribution and aesthetics. Something Max Dawson's post on promo content also does nicely. I think the closing lines from Baldwin's speech in the commercial are apt here: clearly the business model for supporting online content remains "alien" to a great many players in the traditional media industries associated with broadcast TV: Avi's comment about the (confused and inconsistent) use of release windows points to this.

The fact that traditional media companies - e.g. Newscorp and NBC's ownership of - consider the distribution and flexible ad-supported model of aggregation sites like Hulu "alien", however, suggest that we may not get such great "longer shows, with a more sustained narrative pace". I think this may be true to an extent, and you're right to think positively about such content. But it's also probably true that the nature of online viewing is different to TV - again, Max's post points to some of the shorter narrative temporalities supported by online content and he has written a great piece on this in the forthcoming collection "Television as Digital Media" I'm editing.

Finally, in relation to your comments and one of the recurrent themes this week about archival access, it's worth thinking about how Hulu has or hasn't been matched elsewhere in the world. For example, just recently the UK's competition commission ruled that Project Kangaroo - the online TV joint venture between ITV, Channel 4 and BBC Worldwide - would unduly restrict competition in online video distribution. As a result, it seems that we'll see the continuation of each broadcasters' own proprietary service in the immediate future - BBC iPlayer, 4oD etc - which is likely to continue to emphasize the transitory and ephemeral availability of content. This takes us nicely back to Liz's post at the start of the week, and I'm reminded here of Phillip Auslander's comment that our sense of liveness is defined by the televisual: it seems that the desire to create an immediacy, or rather the economic need to ensure online content is viewed within measurable parameters, is being achieved by emphasising the anti-ephemeral qualities of television's liveness that Liz discusses in relation to Williams. Perhaps whilst this remains true, online economics and their associated aesthetic impulses may remain "alien" to a great deal of content creators and distributors.

Thank you both for your insightful comments. Avi, you raise some really interesting questions about the practicalities of how online ad revenues come about. I'm unsure as to how exactly Hulu sell their ad space (although it seems to be working as they're estimated to overtake the revenue of YouTube any day now) but what's interesting about online models such as this is that they have the potential to give sponsors more precise viewing figures. Of course, this might not be something that Hulu would want - after all, Nielson were choosen as the official ratings body for being intentionally vague and inflating their figures. I think its also important to consider the complexity that comes from such a flexible model. For instance, viewers can "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" particular kinds of advertising, the end result being that as scholars, it's near impossible to reconstruct the viewing experience in the same way as a TV broadcast (this is a problem we discussed in the earlier posts).


As for the issue of windowing, this is something that has really interested me lately and you're right to point out the ways in which this seems to be becoming reversed. It's also interesting to note that the established hierarchies of distribution are becoming more fluid. One example that comes to mind is the VOD release of Dark Knight in parts of Asia before the official DVD release. And, on a slightly related note, the introductory segment of DK appeared as a bonus feature on the DVD release of Batman Begins.


James, I like the analogy you make between the alien references in the clip and the alien nature of online distribution models. In response to your comments about the shorter temporalities of online media, this is something that I may talk about more at Ephemeral Media. Sites such as Hulu also "unbundle" (to borrow a term from Max) their content, so viewers can browse the site by clips rather than full length episodes. And you raise a really important question about the differences between American and British (or other) models of online distribution with the example of Kangaroo. Although the UK wont have an aggregator site such as Hulu anytime soon, sites such as the iPlayer and 4OD have many interesting similarities (and differences) that could prove a fruitful point of exploration.


Thanks again for your comments.

This is a really interesting post JP. It reminds me of the response of 24’s producers’ very positive response to the series’ initial broadcast on BBC 2 without ads. They publically said how much they liked the narrative running without ads despite, as you point out, the ad breaks still be evident in non-commercial TV versions (perhaps even more so that other shows – it’s not just a fade to black but an extremely disruptive clock). It also parallels the way they used to show season premieres on TV using sponsorship (normally cars I believe) rather than spots to make the series really ‘real time’. Again though, advertising prevailed with a long ad for the sponsor preventing it actually filling an hour.

What really interests me is the agency the approach of Hulu gives the audience over how they receive their ads. Viewers still have to watch ads but they at least get some control over how and when. This can easily be seen as a response to what viewers were doing (skipping the ads via their PVR or possibly even choosing online versions to avoid adverts) in a similar way to legitimate downloading services responded to illegal ones. There certainly seems to be trend of the industry chasing to replicate services that the viewers are adapting on their own. This is possibly another reason why the industry see these services as ‘alien’.

On a side note, your choice of clip has serendipitous timing – I read it just after reading an article about research that links television with memory loss!

JP –
Great post – I really look forward to hearing you elaborate on these ideas at the workshop this summer. You’ve suggested that “The implications of such a shift [toward “remote free TV”] would be quite apparent; fewer, shorter commercial breaks = longer shows, with a more sustained narrative pace.” I’m curious as to whether you’ve tested out this hypothesis on FOX’s “remote free” presentations of Fringe, Dollhouse, etc. Considering the long lives that FOX’s programs will eventually lead ancillary markets (reruns, syndication), I would wager that these “remote free” episodes do not depart too far from the traditional pacing and four-to-six act structure of most prime-time dramas. That said, these types of stunts do present interesting possibilities for television storytellers, and, additionally, are suggestive of the influences that two dominant modes of “quality” television (pay-TV “paratelevision” and imported British dramas) might be exerting on the economic and creative strategies of the U.S. networks.

On a side note, the "Huluwood" commercial provides a prime example of the forms of hybrid promotion/advertising/entertainment content that I touched on in my post from earlier in the week. Personal anecdote: having missed the commercial when it was broadcast during the Super Bowl, I ended up seeking out the spot on Hulu, where it (as well as all of the other Super Bowl commercials Hulu hosted) was preceded by a pre-roll ad! Advertiser-supported advertising: another breakthrough to thank the peacock network for!

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