Study: Pauses are refreshing

TV viewers rate enjoyment of a show higher when there's advertising

A new study concludes that viewers find TV more pleasurable when they watch commercials.

Researchers at the NYU Stern School of Business found that viewers said they prefer to avoid advertisements yet rated their overall experience of watching a TV show higher when commercials were included.

The seemingly counterintuitive findings will be familiar to those who have read "Stumbling on Happiness," which explains how the pleasure of any positive experience declines because of repetition and time. Watching TV (or eating a fine meal or listening to a favorite song) tends to be more enjoyable at the outset. The longer you do something, the less satisfaction it provides.

By taking a break from the experience — in the case of watching TV, sitting through a few commercials — the interruption helps refresh the novelty of the program.

"People often adapt to the experience of watching television such that each successive minute is slightly less enjoyable than the previous one," said the report's authors, who performed six studies testing aspects of the theory and said their funding was supplied entirely by NYU Stern. "Advertisements, although independently aversive, disrupt this adaptation process and can therefore make the overall experience more enjoyable."

The finding flies in the face of the Hollywood creative community's assumptions about ads limiting fan appreciation for their shows. Many showrunners have said that watching their programs on DVD is the ideal way to see them, free from the distracting hindrance of ads.

In addition to the adaptation effect, the study's authors said their findings suggest other reasons viewers rated TV viewing experiences higher when ads are shown.

"A disruption in a suspenseful plot line might heighten anticipation and intensify its subsequent resolution," the study said. "Similarly, commercials may offer opportunities to elaborate on what viewers have watched so far or to savor what is still to come."

So, if the findings are accurate, why don't people recognize that ads make TV more fun?

The study authors have a few ideas but no firm answers.

One theory is that people don't study themselves; you don't watch a show with ads, then without ads, and compare the experience. Also, viewers might remember ads during a TV show as invasive, not realizing how that invasive experience actually made the program's content more enjoyable. Also, the effect isn't universal: Sometimes, ads don't make TV more enjoyable (for instance, if the tone of the ad clashes with the tone of the show), and those times can skew viewers' impressions of ads in general.

Based on the research, the authors had a suggestion for networks that stream their content online: Stop putting ads at the beginning of the clip.

"Our results indicate that moving the commercial to the middle of the clip — while not intuitively appealing to viewers — would actually increase their enjoyment of the experience," they said.
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