Super Bowl viewing parties aside, most of us don't like having to watch commercials. Back in the 1980s, it was my responsibility to hit the pause button on our VCR during commercial breaks when we taped an episode of the short-lived "Wizards and Warriors." That way, when playing the tape back later on, we could skip right through those ads and get back to the action. Today, DVRs can do automatically what I used to do manually. And then there are streaming services like Netflix that are completely ad-free.
That ad-free experience prompted Stephen Lovely of CordCutting.com to ask the question, How much time in viewing ads does Netflix save the average viewer? Lovely attempted to answer this question by using some publicly available data.
First, he started with the fact that back in January, a letter from Netflix's board to shareholders revealed the company now has more than 75 million customers worldwide. And during a keynote address at CES 2016, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said the company delivered 125 million hours' worth of streaming content to customers every day.
Taking the total hours and dividing by the total customers, Lovely figured that the estimate of hours watched by the average Netflix customer was 1 2/3 hours per day. Then Lovely looked to Nielsen, the company that assigns ratings to television shows based on data from a relatively small sample of viewers. According to Nielsen, the average hour of television in the U.S. contains 15 minutes, 38 seconds (or 938 seconds total) of commercials.
So if you were to watch 1 2/3 hours of cable television, you'd see 1,563 seconds worth of ads. Multiply that by the number of days in a year and you come up with about 570,617 seconds, or about 6.6 days. Lovely concludes that if you watched Netflix instead of cable TV, you'd spare yourself more than six days' worth of advertisements in a year.
But it's not really that simple. For one thing, Lovely was using the average amount of ad time here in the United States. In other parts of the world it's different. For another, some Netflix customers likely watch both cable TV and Netflix. Or maybe some people watch Netflix far more frequently, saving themselves from even more advertisement.
It's also important to remember that Netflix customers haven't necessarily saved themselves any more time; they may watch just as much programming as cable TV subscribers. But the stuff Netflix customers are watching is the content they want to see, not ads. So it's more about avoiding the frustrating experience of being in a commercial break and not about being more efficient with time.
TV executives are taking notice of customer behavior. Cable TV providers have seen a decrease in subscriptions, with more customers choosing to cut the cord. The trend hasn't reached an alarming rate yet, but the writing seems to be on the wall. That might be why NBC Universal recently announced it would be reducing the number of commercials in "Saturday Night Live" episodes by 30 percent next year.
Is the advertising industry heading toward a massive transformation? If people continue to spend energy actively avoiding ads, it seems like a pretty sure bet.