There are many divides among the top programs chasing Emmy gold this year, but none may be as significant to storytelling as that of Madison Avenue.
Some shows have enormous budgets (“Game of Thrones,” “The Crown”) and some are more modest affairs (“The Sinner”). Some series run for eight episodes a season (“Killing Eve”), while some run 18 (“This Is Us”). Some shows drop a full season’s worth of episodes all at once (“Stranger Things,” “Ozark”), and some still roll out the old-fashioned way of once a week (“The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Westworld”).
But one aspect of the race with huge influence over the storytelling process is the difference between shows that air on advertising-supported networks and those that run on commercial-free subscription outlets. Thanks to rise of the streaming platforms, the annual Emmy Awards field has grown lopsided with commercial-free programs.
The ad-supported form naturally imposes certain strictures on producers. The content has to be acceptable to advertisers, which puts limits on language and the depiction of sex and violence. Writers also have to build in act breaks for four to five commercial pods, which affects the pacing of each episode with mini-climaxes and mini-intros arriving every 12 minutes or so. The “we’ll be right back” legacy is the source of the old-school TV rule that characters have to be called by their names in dialogue frequently in order to remind viewers who may have just tuned in while flipping the dial during a commercial break.
The era of binge viewing and peak TV is changing all of this. Some showrunners are lightening up on the act-break format under the expectation that a significant portion of the audience is watching the show on a time-shifted basis. In a world where viewers proactively select shows from a broad a la carte menu, perhaps character names don’t need to be repeated quite so often.
Generally speaking, the ad-supported Emmy contenders in major series and acting categories this year are shows rooted in contemporary times and offer a naturalistic look at life in intriguing subcultures. Think FX’s “Atlanta” and “Better Things,” CBS’ “Mom,” NBC’s “This Is Us” and ABC’s “Black-ish.” There may be a subconscious benefit to marketers by having messages in these kinds of shows. After all, Pamela Adlon’s Sam Fox, Sterling K. Brown’s Randall Pearson and Tracee Ellis Ross’ Bow Johnson are the kind of people who are in the market for paper towels, diapers, four-door sedans, life insurance, wireless data plans — in other words, the products advertised in primetime by blue-chip marketers. (Our favorite TV characters: They’re just like us.)
It’s also telling that ad-supported shows swept the reality-competition series race. The headline-driven arena of late-night variety talk and variety sketch nominees are overwhelmingly ad supported, with the exceptions of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” and “Tracey Ullman’s Show.”
The commercial-free realm lends itself to world-building shows and period drama. “The Crown,” “Westworld,” “Game of Thrones,” “Stranger Things,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “GLOW” would not be quite as engrossing or immersive if the action in the Upside Down or Westeros or Buckingham Palace had to pause every so often for a message from T-Mobile or Viagra. Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the reigning drama series champ, is an outlier in that it airs in both commercial and commercial-free formats. Hulu’s status as a premium streaming service gives it some leeway with advertisers — there’s no FCC content police to worry about — and the service’s commercial format still features far fewer spots than linear cable or broadcast TV.
In this moment of transition for the industry, there is little debate about the advantage of the commercial-free format for creatives. Perennial Emmy contenders such as FX and AMC have taken big steps toward bridging the blurb gap by lowering commercial loads in original series telecasts. Both have also harnessed digital distribution to offer an ad-free version of their channels to devoted fans for $6 a month.
Commercials have been part of the fabric of television ever since NBC served up the first — announcing “Bulova Watch Time” to the audience — in 1941. But time is clearly running out for commercials in scripted Emmy contenders. While the industry adjusts to the new world order, Emmy voters might consider giving a bit of a break to those creatives who still grapple with commercial breaks.