Cable TV

Will binge watching eliminate the 30 second commercial?

The Netflix Inc. website displays the 'House of Cards' series.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Thanks to the phenomenon of binge watching, there's no shame in staying home during the weekend to crash on the couch and obsessively watch your favorite TV show. Despite viewers being glued to their TV sets, having an entire season or series at one's disposal can eliminate the lucrative advertising opportunity of the traditional 30 second commercial.

"Advertisers need to think a lot more about how people are watching TV these days to tailor their creative a little bit more closely," said Tony Lederer, executive strategy director at advertising and marketing agency Grey Group.

About half of Americans proudly admitted to being a binge watcher, according to a December survey by accounting firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers. Cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, who has done work for Netflix, said the recent abundance of critically acclaimed and premium programming has helped lead to the activity's rise.

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"Netflix made it possible to have choice and control when, where and the frequency people want to watch," he said. "There are lots of great shows on right now that they are binging on. No one is binging the 'Dukes of Hazard' or 'The Rockford Files.'"

With the prevalence of the behavior, even linear networks are more open to releasing entire seasons of a show at once instead of weekly. The entire first season of NBC's new drama "Aquarius" appeared online right after the show's two-hour broadcast premiere on Thursday night. CBS will make the entire season of James Patterson's new TV show "Zoo" available on Netflix soon after the season finale airs.

Binge watching behavior is also giving power back to the creators, McCraken pointed out. Episodes of the fourth season of "Arrested Development" on Netflix didn't have to stick to the standard 22-minute length of a 30-minute program to make space for commercials. Instead, they varied between 28 to 37 minutes.

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Hulu senior vice president of advertising sales Peter Naylor said knowing that people watch episode after episode is something the video service thinks about. While its programs still keep the traditional commercial breaks, it has fewer ads. It's also aware that it may have to tweak how many breaks appear in the future, especially when a viewer might be settling in for an extended viewing period.

"Viewer fatigue (due to commercials) is something we're thinking about," Naylor said.

As a result, many streaming video platforms are experimenting with other kinds of commercials that combine online user data to create more relevant ads. For example, Hulu offers custom, co-produced commercials of any length. It's also open to hosting branded series, including Subway's "4 to 9ers" and Chipotle's "Farmed and Dangerous."

"The biggest opportunity for brands right now is to develop unique content that is relevant to the context of how people use the channel and can be targeted at a more niche audience," Grey's Lederer said. "Taking one piece of advertising and using it across all channels still can do a lot for a brand, but coming up with a more tailored approach will be even more effective."

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Still, it's not quite time to say goodbye to the 30-second spot. The actual definition of binge watching can vary greatly. A Netflix study completed by Harris Interactive found that most people defined binge watching as a marathon viewing session of two to six episodes. McCracken pointed out that the majority of binge watchers sit through only two to three episodes before calling it a day.

"It's something that we like to dramatize or self-dramatize … People are binging, not feasting," he added.

While digital outlets and even video-on-demand options may allow for more appropriate ads for viewers, live TV is still the best medium to reach the masses, said Melissa Keller, executive vice president of integrated investments for Havas Media. USA Today reported that only 6.5 percent of U.S.households are without cable.

"TV ads are expensive, but it's the immediate reach vehicle of the masses," she said.

Lederer said for events like the Super Bowl, Oscars and Olympics, live TV still provides a sizable and captive audience.

"There will continue to be, for the foreseeable future, some kind of standardized way for brands to develop advertising that will be part of programming—whether that's online or TV," he said. "So long as people consume content through media channels, there will be standardized ways for brands to create content to reach them."

Keller said while standard TV commercials are in need of a creative reboot when to accommodate binge viewers, there needs to be more people watching on online or video-on-demand platforms for marketers to stop thinking in 30 second ads, Keller said. It's simply not worth the budget to come up with a traditional commercial and then an additional customized ad for the binge watching experience.

Even Hulu's Naylor admits custom-length ads make up less than 10 percent of the commercials that run on its platform. Most brands just run a variation of what they filmed for their TV commercial.

"There needs to be more incentive to change the model," Keller said.