Apart from live sports and breaking news, TV broadcasters have—with some minor variations—relied on the rigid time slots of linear TV for decades. They’ve clung to this model even as more people turn to DVR and streaming services to watch TV on their own schedules.

That’s finally starting to change. A couple weeks ago, Fox announced that it would adopt a six-second ad format, beginning with its on-demand shows and eventually moving to its linear broadcast channel. And last week, AMC announced a $5-per-month streaming service that will let cable subscribers watch shows like The Walking Dead at the same time as the live broadcast, but without ads.

Those developments could be the beginning of a breakdown for linear TV as we know it. When commercial breaks become drastically shorter, or when a subset of viewers can watch new shows with no breaks at all, spacing every program into 30- or 60-minute time slots becomes obsolete.

Creating dead air

AMC isn’t the first ad-supported TV network to offer an ad-free option. CBS sells an ad-free version of its All Access subscription plan for $4 per month, as does Hulu for its on-demand service (which is jointly owned by Disney, Comcast, Fox, and Time Warner). Many network shows are also available without ads from a la carte stores like iTunes and Amazon Video.

But unlike those standalone offerings, AMC Premiere is only available to people who already get the channel through a pay TV bundle, starting with Comcast Xfinity subscribers. (The plan is to eventually offer it through other providers, and possibly through streaming bundles.)

More importantly, AMC won’t make Premiere subscribers wait until after the live broadcast is over to watch the ad-free version. Premiere’s ad-free streams will be available at the same time as the live broadcast, so when subscribers start watching The Walking Dead at 9 p.m. on a Sunday, they’ll get through the episode roughly 15 minutes faster than someone who watches it on cable.

That’s a nifty perk, but it creates a new dilemma for AMC: What happens after the episode ends? With cable, the viewer might see a brief commercial break, followed by whatever 10 p.m. show the network has strategically chosen to keep viewers on board. With Premiere, an hour-long drama without ads will end long before the next program is scheduled to begin. In the meantime, AMC must figure out how to avoid losing those viewers to another channel.

Fox will face a similar dilemma once it brings six-second advertisements to its linear TV channels. With standard 30-second ads, the average commercial break lasts for two or three minutes. Six-second ads will likely take up far less time; so unless Fox’s programs start running longer, the network will need to fill more empty space in a standard 30- or 60-minute time slot.



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