Anthony Horowitz says ad breaks are killing TV drama - so how do stations pay their dues without losing the plot?
In a bracing rant delivered at the Hay Festival, the author and writer of big ITV series including Foyle's War and Midsomer Murders said that the number of ad breaks today not only frustrates viewers but changes the way he works
At 9.01pm on 22 September, 1955, a terribly well-spoken man interrupted programming on the day ITV was born to tell us: "It's tingling fresh. It's fresh as ice. It's Gibbs SR Toothpaste, the tingling fresh toothpaste that does your gums good, too."
Almost 60 years after the broadcast of Britain's first TV ad, advertisers, TV channels, viewers and programme makers have been in an almost constant state of tension about when and how to thrust commercials into our faces.
Anthony Horowitz says we're doing it all wrong. In a bracing rant delivered at the Hay Festival, the author and writer of big ITV series including Foyle's War and Midsomer Murders said that the number of ad breaks today not only frustrates viewers but changes the way he works.
"It is absolutely terrible the way television is chopped into so many little bits," he said. "The story has to be designed to work around that." His tongue perhaps at least tickling his cheek, Horowitz also claimed that such demands made Midsomer Norton an even deadlier place to live. "Whenever there was a commercial break I would kill somebody, and there were so many breaks it was a bit of a bloodbath," he said. "After 14 episodes I realised there was no one left."
ITV and Channel 4 receive a growing number of complaints about ads on their money-spinning shows. Last September, one critic nicknamed Downton Abbey "Downton Addy" after the first episode of the latest series featured 23 minutes of ads between 67 minutes of period drama.
But Julian Fellowes, the show's creator and writer, says he does not recognise Horowitz's gripes. "Unfortunately, not every channel is given trillions in taxpayers' money," he says, also taking an opportunity to knock the BBC. "It's true that ads interrupt Downton Abbey, but they also pay for it. One has to be philosophical about these things."
Fellowes – Lord Fellowes to you – says breaks follow the plot on Downton, not the other way round, and they never feature in his scripts. "They don't say an ad break has got to happen now… [and] they can be varied a bit to suit the narrative." Downton costs more than £1m per episode to make, while channels pay huge sums for imports such as Homeland or Fargo, both of which have been criticised for ad splurges. But as Claire Beale, editor-in-chief of Campaign, says: "Broadcasters have to strike a careful balance between ensuring the best experience for the viewer and maximising the commercial opportunities that brilliant programming affords. If viewers feel frustrated, they'll switch channels."
Growing number of complaints: The first episode of the latest series of Downton Abbey featured 23 minutes of ads
There are, thankfully, rules that limit advertising. Ofcom, the industry regulator, dictates that "minutage", as it's known, cannot exceed 12 minutes per hour. But by spilling shows over into a second hour, as ITV did with that Downton premiere (which scored 10.5 million viewers, by the way), a channel can effectively double its money.
Within those movable windows, ad buyers negotiate the premium slots. "You want to be as early as you can, and you want centre breaks [any break within a programme]," says Chris Locke, the UK trading director of Starcom MediaVest Group. "And then it's about where you are in the break. You want to be the first, second or last ad."
As head of programming at London Live, the new channel that shares an office (and owner) with this newspaper, Jonathan Boseley buys BBC dramas to run alongside original content. Where to put the ads? "Most channels have three centre breaks, but we've decided to start with two, which limits potential ad revenue, but improves the viewing experience," he says. "With The Shadow Line, which of course had no ad breaks on BBC2, we sat down with our editing team and made sure we put the breaks in the best places to keep them as smooth as possible."
Fellowes aside, creators such as Horowitz worry most about the effects of ads. In 2011, Matthew Weiner, the man behind Mad Men, was reportedly on the verge of walking away from his own baby after AMC, the channel which commissions it, tried to cut two minutes from each episode to make way for more ads. In the end, a £20m pay cheque helped keep him happy, all of it earned from advertising.
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