Ads cause drama for TV shows

August 16, 2005|By Roger Catlin | Roger Catlin,HARTFORD COURANT

They still call them half-hour comedies on network TV. But take out the swelling amount of commercials, and you'll get closer to 21 minutes.

It's twice as bad, of course, on the hourlong dramas. Not an hour at all. Producers only have to come up with 41 minutes of story, with the rest consumed by commercials.

And if a show is successful enough to make it to syndication? Take out another two minutes for more ads.

Pity the show unlucky enough to be programmed next to a popular show that's expanded a few minutes to build a bridge between programs meant to retain viewers. You'll also lose a few minutes there.

Producers are starting to speak out.

"If there's anything that makes me envious of cable television and wanting to run to that world, it's the intrusion of commercial breaks," said David E. Kelley, creator of Boston Legal. Kelley, who also created L.A. Law and Ally McBeal, spoke to writers at the recent TV Critics Association tour in Los Angeles.

"I mean, when we're down to eight-minute acts before a Dodge Ram commercial comes pounding in, it's put a burden on us to try to compete with those commercials," Kelley says.

Not only is the time intrusive, so is the tone of such ads. "We've got to now bang in after those commercials to try and get the viewer's attention back," he says. "It makes for very, very difficult storytelling, especially when you're trying to tell quiet stories, emotional story lines."

Greg Daniels, executive producer of NBC's The Office, whose comedy depends on long pauses and some improvisation, also feels the pain. "The way we shoot, we're always so long," he said.

"It's always so painful to cut scenes to get it to the air time, which nowadays is the shortest it's been in the history of TV," he said.

Some say the networks' problems with launching new sitcoms are tied to the fact that it's difficult to tell a cogent story in 20 minutes.

It also means that DVD releases of the programs are even more important to their creators because minutes cut for time can be restored.

In the case of The Office, the release of Season 1 episodes on DVD today means "an hour of deleted scenes and extra jokes," Daniels says.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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