Research suggests online TV viewers may be willing to tolerate longer commercial breaks

Viewers of television shows on the Web have grown accustomed to 15- and 30-second commercial breaks — a fraction of the time given for commercials on traditional TV. Would they accept TV-style ad loads?

“It’s a million-dollar question,” said Jack Wakshlag, the chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting, the parent of TNT and TBS.

He says the answer is yes. Research conducted by Turner suggested that programmers could surround the online streams of shows with even more ads than TV broadcasts have.

Regardless of the ad load, Wakshlag said in an interview, “people will spend approximately the same amount of time watching episodes online.”

The research comes at a pivotal time for programmers like Turner, which would like to extend TV-style ad loads to the Internet. Turner and others are slowly extending their programs to the Internet for existing cable and satellite subscribers only, a concept sometimes called TV Everywhere. Heavier ad loads and restricted access will go a long way toward bringing TV on the computer in line with TV on the living room set.

To conduct the test of online viewers’ behavior, Turner randomly assigned three sets of anonymous visitors to and to a specially built video player. There, the first set was shown about a minute of ads an episode; the second was shown 8 to 10 minutes of ads; and the third was shown 16 to 20 minutes.

Viewers of 30-minute TBS sitcoms like “Meet the Browns” watched, on average, 40 percent of the episode if there was one minute of ads and 37 percent of the episode if there was 16 minutes of ads. Viewers of hourlong TNT shows like “Memphis Beat” watched 59 percent of the episode if there was one minute 15 seconds of ads, and 49 percent of the episode if there was 20 minutes of ads.

Wakshlag’s takeaway was that viewers watched, on average, for the same number of minutes no matter how many ads were embedded within. Indeed, the Turner research highlighted one of the oddities of online TV viewing: Viewers often do not watch an entire episode, just as they channel-surf while on the couch.

Turner also found that the commercial retention rate for online video was higher than for traditional television.

Wakshlag said the research, which was done in concert with Magna Global, affirmed that people would trade ad exposure for access to programming.

The CW network has reached the same conclusions in a real-world test. CW, the home of “Gossip Girl” and “The Vampire Diaries,” announced last spring that it would increase its ad load on, and since then, it has reported gains in video viewing and visitor retention. According to the measurement firm comScore, the website averaged 57 minutes of video viewing (a total of ads and content) per visitor in September, up 140 percent from the same month in 2009.

Some in the television industry continue to proselytize for fewer but better ads. Hulu, the dominant website for free TV viewing, notes on its website that it has about one-fourth the ad load of traditional TV, and that advertisers pay a premium to be in its less cluttered environment.

One of Hulu’s principles, as expressed by its chief executive, Jason Kilar, is, “When it comes to the amount of advertising, lighten up.” In an address at the industry conference NewTeeVee Live this month, Kilar compared the four minutes of ads on the half-hour “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” in the 1950s with the eight minutes of ads when NBC broadcasts “The Office” now, and said, “Where we are today is not the ideal balance.”

Hulu has been at the fore of coming up with ad products that give viewers more options to, for example, select among three types of commercials by a car company. Still, some Hulu users have noticed an uptick in the number of ads being streamed lately, perhaps evincing the complex calculations that are under way in the industry to increase ad loads and, in doing so, increase revenue for media companies.

Asked about the recent uptick in ads, a Hulu spokeswoman reiterated that the site had “less than half” the ads compared with “what is found on traditional TV.” The company said the lighter ad load and the tailoring efforts had “resulted in the advertising spots on Hulu being measured as at least 55 percent more effective than the same ads in traditional channels.”

The ads on websites like, and will continue to be better customized. But if this year’s tests indicate anything, it is that there will also be more of them.