In the current age of DVRs and increasingly attractive streaming options — not to mention the nearly infinite number of ways the morally ambiguous can find content through less than legal avenues — live viewership of TV programming seems to hit a new overall low every season. For instance, 10 years ago, NBC would likely have axed a series drawing less than a 2.0 rating without a second thought, while nowadays the majority of the network’s scripted programming line-up is lucky to break a 1.5.
One show that still performs well for NBC is weekend mainstay Saturday Night Live. Currently in its 41st season on the air, SNL goes through its rough patches to be sure, but eventually seems to reinvent and revitalize itself enough to remain relevant with the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic. Currently averaging a 1.9 rating and 6.4 million total live plus same-day viewers, SNL outdraws every scripted NBC series not named Blindspot in the 18-49 demo, and nearly matches hits like The Blacklist and Law & Order: SVU in total viewership.
Despite that, NBC feels SNL could do even better. As such, the network has decided to make the sketch series more friendly to live audiences, by cutting the amount of commercials during each SNL episode by 30 percent. This amounts to losing two entire ad breaks per episode, with viewers gaining 6-10 minutes of additional program time — based on the length of an average commercial break. The change will go into effect with SNL’s season 42 premiere this fall. To try and compensate for this drop in revenue, NBC plans to offer a limited amount of partnership opportunities to interested brands, with the intent being to create sponsored segments of SNL. What forms those sponsorships will take on-screen remains to be seen.
While that might seem a bit drastic for NBC to do all at once, one should consider just how much the amount of commercials has increased in just the past few decades. As recently as the ’90s, it was common for a 30-minute TV episode to run 22-25 minutes of actual content, whereas today most sitcoms run between 19 and 22. Similarly, the standard running length for an hour-long drama series used to be 44-48 minutes, whereas today it’s usually between 40 and 44. The amount of ads has increased so much that when classic shows are rerun on cable, it’s become the norm to slightly speed up the show and/or cut out entire scenes in order to fit in more commercials.
With the commercial tolerance of today’s audiences at an all-time low, it makes sense that a major player like SNL is experimenting with fewer breaks. If this endeavor is successful, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for more and more shows or networks to jump on the less ads bandwagon as well. Of course, viewers may ultimately have to ask themselves whether the drop in interruptions is worth a possible future where Weekend Update is brought to them by Mountain Dew: Code Red.
Saturday Night Live airs Saturdays at 11:30pm on NBC.