Commercials Are Streaming’s New Norm, and Creators Aren’t Happy: “It’s Almost Worse Than Broadcast”

On Monday, Prime Video subscribers who visited the platform were greeted with a new prompt: “Movies and TV shows included with Prime now have limited ads. You can upgrade to be ad free for $2.99 a month.”

After a swift click on “not now,” this viewer cued up one of the more successful titles currently gracing Amazon’s roster — the second season of beefcake vigilante drama Reacher. Interruptions, which included a spot for another series (Hudson & Rex, starring a German Shepherd detective) and a reminder from the folks at Intuit TurboTax that filing season has commenced, were indeed limited. But in an era where more and more viewers are culturally conditioned to be repulsed by ads on any broadcast but the Super Bowl, even limited spots are conspicuous.

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“We fought so hard to get rid of commercials,” says Alan Poul, executive producer and director of Max original Tokyo Vice, which returns for a second season Feb. 8. “It was one of the biggest steps in bringing the worlds of TV and film closer together, in getting that higher level of artist to participate. It was such a seminal gain, and now it’s reversing.”

If you’re not willing or able to part with an extra $2.99, $6 (Disney+ and Max), $8.50 (Netflix) or $10 (Hulu) to go ad-free, commercials are the new (old) normal. Paramount expands its own ad-supported tier internationally later in 2024 — and though no official plans have been announced, recent hires at Apple TV+ suggest the tech behemoth will eventually introduce ads as well. Subscriber frustrations, especially in a climate of unabated inflation, are a given. Feelings in the creative community, which vary from indifference to outrage, largely depend on where and how one works.

For Poul, whose stateside platform is still expanding its global reach, Tokyo Vice has to be made in a way that allows it to be sold to multiple platforms in other territories. Some of those have advertising and others don’t. And while act breaks — those are moments of deliberate transition in scripts that double as natural windows for commercials — aren’t written in to accommodate the potential for ads, Poul says such breaks are discussed with editors in postproduction.

Many scribes still pen scripts with those broadcast-friendly act breaks in mind. One of them, Terry Matalas, operated under the assumption that Star Trek: Picard might eventually find its way to a platform with an ad-supported tier while working on the series. When Paramount+ expands ads in a few months, his instincts will have been proven right. “I’d just hope showrunners have a say where the ads are,” says Matalas, “and that [episodes] don’t just break in the middle.”

The absence of any discussion around ad placement, for the creatives who spoke for this story, appears to be the norm — and a real sticking point for several. When filmmaker Lulu Wang spoke with THR in January, she was still unsure where advertising would be placed on her pricey Prime Video drama Expats. Adopting a weekly rollout, with the first two episodes having premiered before the introduction of the advertising tier and the back four dropping in this new era, Wang says she didn’t find out about the possibility of advertising until filming had wrapped. (Amazon publicly announced the plans in September 2023, solidifying the tier’s start date and price point in December.)

“I’m very angry about that,” said Wang. “If I had known, I would’ve created in a different way because it’s not a show that has cliff-hangers or commercial breaks to make sure people come back.”

David E. Kelley, the onetime broadcast golden boy who gave audiences Picket Fences, Chicago Hope and Ally McBeal before pivoting to premiere outlets like HBO (Big Little Lies) and Netflix (The Lincoln Lawyer), seems similarly disenchanted. In 2021, he released the first season of Nicole Kidman collaboration Nine Perfect Strangers on Hulu. Depending on the viewers’ subscription plan, they got, by his estimation, two different shows.

“Sometimes it upends the piece,” says Kelley. “I thought Nine Perfect Strangers with commercials was horrible. We sold it as a one-hour show, and it was served like a pie — but it was pudding. You can’t cut pudding into slices, and that’s exactly what was done.”

Not everyone feels as strongly. When Wednesday creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar delivered their Jenna Ortega drama to Netflix, the dominant streamer’s most watched English-language original to date, the pair baked natural moments for ad breaks into the episodes they delivered — more out of habit than anything. “’Propulsive,’ that’s the word you hear most in streaming … how to hook people and bring them back,” says Gough. “So while there are no act breaks in scripts like there used to be, the form is there. We’re not doing it because of any mandate from Netflix or [producers] MGM.”

Wednesday’s second season is being written in a similar fashion. And while Millar says there’s been no dialogue with executives about where to slot in said ads, it’s also not a concern: “If they asked us where act breaks go, we would tell them, but it’s pretty obvious.”

Francesca Sloane, co-creator and showrunner of Amazon Prime’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith, is in a similar boat to Wang. She learned about the ad-supported tier during postproduction and, come Feb. 2, has the first marquee series to launch under the new subscription model. She says they did not make any changes for where ads might go.

“I’ve written on other shows in the past where this question has come up,” says Sloane, who previously worked on Atlanta, Fargo and Seven Seconds. “Nine times out of 10, you just try to write the story without thinking about any breaks and then hope that it doesn’t create too big of a disruption.”

Whether they’re thinking about it or not, TV makers and viewers are running out of strictly commercial-free platforms. And those streamers that have already made the jump are doubling down. Netflix, which recently cited that 40 percent of all new signups opt for ads, announced the “retirement” of its least expensive commercial-free tier in the coming second quarter. Advertising, after all, isn’t just an additional revenue stream. It’s a way appease Wall Street with subscriber growth, and cheaper plans will always be appealing to a large portion of consumers. “The reality is that most consumers buy cheaper tiers,” says Kelley, “which is almost worse than broadcast. Then, you could at least TiVo your way through the breaks.”

This wholesale transition from the original promise of streaming would perhaps be rankling more writers and producers, were it not coming at a time of deep-seated frustrations with the entire ecosystem. The resolutions of the 2023 strikes offered gains and new assurances, yes, but Hollywood returned to work beleaguered by tighter budgets, mass cancellations and fewer green lights. Making TV without the concern of commercial breaks, like many perks of the past decade’s now-defunct TV boom, is a thing of the past.

“Losing commercials was one of the biggest steps in making TV more cinematic,” says Poul. “I’m happy to pay a couple extra bucks to not have them, but I know that’s not a luxury that is available to everybody.”

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