Remember waking up early on a Saturday to watch the morning cartoons, or having to watch a whole episode of a show you despised just so you wouldn’t miss the show that came after?
Or when everyone wanted to watch the same show so we would all have to huddle by the TV to watch the latest episode of Lost? Now all of that is dead. Long gone. Buried on top of the same grave where they buried Blockbuster. However, I want to dig up that rotten corpse because I believe we killed something that deserves a place in the world of contemporary television: The Commercial Break. Something so despised I bet they wouldn’t even give it a tombstone. What you’re about to read is my case for the commercial break (please do not @ me on any social media platform, I'm very sensitive).
If you're watching with other people commercial breaks are perfect time to go grab that popcorn, or go to bathroom. When the show breaks for commercial, while everyone is groaning and the singing vitamins start up again, your bladder sings a sweet melody. Here is a beautiful 2-3 minute break to release all your body’s toxins and afterward you can go back to watching your show comfortably, without having missed a beat. Now you might be thinking, um hello we can pause now, why wouldn’t you just pause? Well thanks for calling in Susan, that’s exactly what I wanted to talk about next.
The guilt of pausing is too much. You simply can't pause while you're watching TV with other people. Now not only do you have to deal with the physical pain of holding your bladder, you also have to deal with the heavy burden of guilt that comes along with pausing the TV in the middle of an important scene! No one likes to hear “I’m sorry I paused in the middle of a character’s death, it’s not my fault I have a weak bladder.”
There was incentive to create cliffhangers within the episode rather than at the end. I think we all remember watching ‘Friends’ and right when we find out that Monica finds out that her brother is making out with her best friend, the show cuts for a commercial break. We all groan and cry, frustrated because we want to know if Monica kills Ross or not. Although those 2-3 minutes of anticipation were excruciating, I think they were important because by keeping us on the edge of our seats they let more of the show stick with us in our memory.
Today’s TV content flashes before our eyes. There’s no break or pause for time to reflect or anticipate. With no breaks in an episode, cliffhangers are left to the very end, and with Netflix’s habit of dropping all episodes at once, we have the freedom to watch the entire series in a single viewing. Habits like binge watching leads to us forget our favourite TV shows faster and we find ourselves coming to a blank trying to remember what happened in a certain episode or unable to place where an event occurred in the series. I think the previous system of airing one episode per week gave viewers time to reflect and even rewatch, giving our brains the time to process everything and have a better understanding of the story’s timeline.
Although I stand by every point I’ve just made I think it’s important to say I don’t want to go back to what TV was in the early 2000’s (please, I don’t want to watch Masterchef ever again, I’m begging you). Today’s streaming TV has peeled back a lot of the commercial responsibilities, including the network demand for commercial breaks, and it has given way to some of the best art I’ve ever encountered. In fact, it could be argued that the commercial break was limiting to show runners and writers who had to write them in.
I think the next time I pause to go and pee, I might just have to suck it up when everyone yells at me, especially if it means I get to experience the imaginative and revolutionary world of television in its golden age.