Please Enjoy This Commercial Break

So it turns out that commercials might not be such a bad thing. A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that test groups enjoyed a tv show more when there were commercials inserted.

In one experiement, two test groups were shown an episode of Taxi; one with commercials, the other without. The group who viewed the show with commercials enjoyed the show much more. According to the author, the theory is that commercials provide a contrast to the show. At each commercial break, the viewer is reminded that that show they were watching is much better by comparison.

I have a different theory, one that the Freakonomics blog shares: TV shows are written and edited with commercial breaks in mind. Some shows like Arrested Development and The Office make great use of the few moments right before those breaks. When watching those shows on DVD (while still great) the breaks suddenly seem slightly awkward. In other shows such as Lost or Heroes, the commercial breaks can give viewers a time to talk with others about what they just saw, theories they have about the show, or what they think will happen next.

Freakonomics sums it up nicely:

Filmmakers don’t seem to need commercial breaks to keep audiences interested. Or could Sam Mendes have pushed his Revolutionary Road into a Golden Globe for best drama by chopping it up with a few well-timed words from his sponsors?

The answer is “no.”

Online Video Attention Spans

We all know attention spans diminish rapidly once content moves online. With traditional mediums such as theater, television, and radio, you have a relatively captive audience (though I believe lessening as you go down that short list). True someone may get up during a TV show, but they’re still mostly just sitting there with the sole purpose of watching the program on the box.

Online entertainment is a different story, especially for video-based content. Personally, I believe it is a combination of the “snack mentality” and multitasking. In the former, people just want a little bit of something. They usually don’t go online with the sole intent of watching this video or that, they go online to be entertained or gather news & information. The specifics usually aren’t that important ((Notice I say “usually.” Sometime people fire up the YouTube for a certain video. Also, research is also a pretty targeted task. One doesn’t often say “You know, I think I’m going to research… something.”)).

More to the point, TubeMogul recently posted a study in which they tracked how long users would watch a video. The results aren’t really surprising: Roughly 90% of people watch more than 10 seconds, while fewer than 10% will watch more than five minutes, which a fairly strait drop-off as you move between the two. Though there is a slightly larger dip once the one minute mark is passed.

Though, as with all statistics, the numbers make little sense without context.

For a two-week period, we measured viewed-seconds for a sample of 188,055 videos, totaling 22,724,606 streams, on six top video sites

So we know it’s from a variety of sites and (likely) a variety of different videos. The thing I believe is missing is context, namely the type of videos. For example, I have a fairly low tolerance for for shaky cell-phone footage of some dude wiping out on his bike. However, I will often watch most narrative (and the more traditional documentary) pieces through to the end, provided they are intriguing & interesting.

Many times at work, we are constantly talking about this magical “two-minute threshold,” where if a video is longer than two minutes, it’s often too long. However, I tend to disagree. I don’t think there is a hard threshold. If something is engaging, people will watch, provided the have the time. There’s just a difference between watching someone else’s antics and being told a story.

For the sake of argument, many on-line videos are just images of something that (generally) regular people are doing. Dropping Mentos in Diet-Coke, someone’s kid doing something silly, high-school students left to their own devices with a camera ((If you’re a high-school student and reading this, just put the camera down, seriously. Just think about what you are going to be documenting. Chances are, it’s really not a good idea… at all.))… I, and I believe many people, just don’t have a high tolerance for any lengthy video in that category. I believe this is the reason for the rapid fall-off in the TubeMogul chart. Those videos just aren’t worth our attention when our time is finite.

What I would be curious to see is a break down of types of videos. I firmly believe that people will sit down and watch more of an online video if it is narrative or  a more traditional documentary. But I could be wrong. It’s been known to happen once-in-a-while.

[via korrejohnson]

[update: also posted this on the All About Face blog.]