Like most people who use a DVR, I now find it psychologically intolerable to watch live TV with commercial breaks. I need a product that senses commercials and automatically switches from live TV to a channel with no commercial at the moment, or perhaps to a recorded show on my DVR, so my commercial breaks are filled with content from other shows. When my live TV show returns from break, my TV switches automatically back.

I could imagine setting a hierarchy of live TV shows that my TV tries before finding one that is not in commercial break at the moment. This would be handy for bar TVs in particular. When the baseball game goes to commercial, it switches to CNN, or whatever.

Can technology detect the beginning and end of TV commercials? I don't know. But if not, one could imagine hiring low-cost labor in other countries to monitor the major channels on each cable network and manually indicating the beginning and end of breaks.

I'd also like my DVR to know the length of every commercial break it records so it can automatically skip them. All the DVR needs to know is the last still frame before the commercial break and the first one after. It can do pattern matching to find those frames for the skipping.

Imagine that your DVR and all others are networked to the cloud. The first thousand people who view a particular show will start to fast-forward through commercials at about the same time within an episode and will start playing the show again after about the same length of time. The cloud finds an average and presents it as an option to future viewers of that same recorded show. If you accept the crowd's average time for the start and stop of commercials, your system skips for you without intervention.

This idea might destroy the TV industry, and I'd feel bad about that. So don't build this product. I'm more curious about whether it would work. Call it a geeky curiosity.

As a bonus, I leave you with this DVR tip. Have you noticed that the last commercial in a block of commercials is always an ad for another show on the same network? When you're fast-forwarding through commercials, look for the ad for another show. That's when you're near the end.

Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com (Scheduling made simple)

Author of How to Fail... which is a perfect graduation gift.


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May 7, 2014
We actually created an app for that. Checkout "Commercial Break" at the App/Play store.

We also have a system running in our lab that automatically zaps to my next favorite channel when my program cuts to commercials.


Apr 14, 2014
Just want to say that this idea is brilliant. I hardly ever watch live TV anymore but instead use MythTV as my DVR which has commercial skip built in and it's terrific. Because of this, live TV is just an abomination. It's like browsing the web without AdBlock Plus installed - simply brutal.

I could imagine a system such as described by Scott existing if we were able to take advantage of all those suckers, er, viewers on the East Coast recording and marking the commercials for the rest of us (sorry, US-centric view but you get the idea). If the commercial markers were shared on the 'net than others could take advantage of it.

Until then TheOtherStig's work-around is pretty effective. There's about 8 minutes of commercials per half hour of air time.

Back in the early 90s I actually had a VCR that would, after recording a program, go back and flag the commercials. During playback it would fast-forward through them and resume play at the end. So great that the technology is back and, thanks to digital, instantaneous.
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Apr 11, 2014
This is already built in to many DVR's. Of course the networks don't like this at all. The TV signal actually includes a marker for the beginning and end of the commercials so that the local broadcasters can automate their part. They try to cut this off or mask it, but it usually does not work.
Also, why is anyone still watching broadcast TV?
Apr 10, 2014
I have DISH Network. One its features is that prime tie TV shows are automatically recorded. When I watch those shows, the commercials are automatically skipped. A user can decline this feature, but I opted to use it!
Apr 10, 2014
I just composed a very lengthy description of my system, which is pretty close to ideal and working today, but your blog ate it, so I guess you'll never know. Send me an email if you're truly interested.
Apr 10, 2014
You can get the 'cheap labour' you talked about detecting commercials even cheaper. In the piracy world there are no commercials. Somebody records and manually skips commercials. What do they get for it? Nothing, just a bit of street cred in their community. So, build a community, dice out points, and you're good.
Apr 9, 2014
Believe it or not, one of the last VCRs my family ever bought growing up had technology that actually did this when you were watching the tape back. It would automatically detect when the commercial started and fast-forward to when it stopped! It was a golden-colored RCA VCR if I remember correctly. So this technology obviously exists!
Apr 9, 2014
No commercials = product placement
Apr 9, 2014
I find that muting the sound when the commercials appear works just as well.

(But you don't get distracted by switching to seeing something else)

Apr 9, 2014
Consider what you are doing. Block commercials are humane compared to the alternatives. At least the artwork inbetween commercials is left intact. (Yeah I am fully aware of the kind of puddle I just dipped the word "art" in, excuse this please).
In the rare case I watch TV I don't want it to be all product placement.

To satisfy your inner geek: It is easy to train a (cloud-based) neural net for commercials. Even with a naive or hardwired implementation you can detect small, identical and often repeated strips of video. You'd have to watch it only once, until it is marked "commercial".
A good neural net could to the classification task on its own, after you have trained it enough.
Actually the best feature to train on would be the audio, since the video is often cut or invaded by tickers and logos. The audio is always very loud and crisp.
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Apr 9, 2014
This is why I switched to online media for my entertainment: YouTube, Twitch.tv, and - if i'm feeling up for a movie - Netflix/Hulu.

I get the occasional advertisement for streamed content, but it's nowhere near as obnoxious (and usually tailored to my interest at least slightly - Though I've seen the Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls commercial about a billion times now.)

Most network programming is overused, vapid nonsense. Reality show programming (and it's creeping in to non-reality shows too) has ruined TV for every demographic that DOESN'T like that kind of thing.

Thankfully, I can get plenty of entertainment online from personalities that I enjoy - real people who are genuinely funny and provide new stuff on a day-to-day basis. Most of them have a subscriber base as large as any hosted show, and I am happy to sit through the ridiculously few tailored commercials for D3 to support someone I look at as a "real person", and not a TV studio construction.

Completely off-topic really, but people have already spoken about the actual subject. Yes, it's possible, but the studios would fight tooth and nail to sue/prevent it from becoming actually viable. Whenever someone tries to develop technology to get around another aspect of technology, it has been met with resistance. (See: digital downloads of music and Napster as one example - and now I find it tedious to even look at a brick and mortar store!)
Apr 8, 2014
Words with Friends is a good way to get through commercial breaks during a live game.
Apr 8, 2014
Commercials are getting easier and easier to skip. TV screens are getting wider and wider. I keep waiting for the day when the networks get rid of the commercial break, and simply place banner ads around the border of the screen while the show is playing.

Of course, then there would be 100 VC-backed startups with devices to artificially expand your viewing area so the banners are pushed off the screen.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 8, 2014
There was/is a product called BeyondTV. It was/is the best dvr software. It was for the DIY's out there who built their own DVR boxes. Came with a remote and everything. It also has a feature called "SmartSkip" that put markers in where it though commercials were. Basically it detected the black fadeout/in between the commercials and the show. It worked about 98% of the time. When a commercial hit, you just hit the next button and viola! the show continued. Best ever. But they don't make it for consumers anymore that I know of. The latest version I have is 4.2.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 8, 2014
To your fantasy DVR I would add a Program Guide that knows whether the channel
is in a commercial or not-- dim the program name or something so I don't waste my time
tuning to an appealing sounding show only to find it in the midst of a ten minute commercial
break. I'm only going to surf on to something else. It would be interesting to see how few channels
at any given glance at the guide are actually running the program content listed.
Apr 8, 2014
Seems that I heard a commercial break is about 2 minutes long. And it seems that I heard there was a 2-minute-skip feature on most DVRs. And it seems that lawsuits forced that feature to disappear. Nice idea, but I think many tech solutions exist, and the hurdle (as usual) is legal and political.
Apr 8, 2014
This would only be a short term fix, as commercials are doomed in the long run anyway. Consider that:

- There's absolutely no way for companies to measure the effectiveness of TV ads (How many people saw it? How many people actually did something after seeing it?)
- The ads are sent to an incredibly broad audience, which makes targeting nearly impossible, wasting most of the impressions on people who aren't interested (Why do they keep showing me car ads? I'm a poor college student who won't be buying one for several more years).

Just with those two points, it means that a single, well-targeted, measurable ad will provide more value to businesses than the, what, 20 commercials they show during a TV program?

Imagine exchanging a little bit of privacy for the ability to almost entirely remove ads from your online/media experience. Willingly give advertisers significant access to your interests, hobbies and life situation so that they can perfectly target ads to you...then, you'd just have to be shown 1-2 ads per DAY, and it would provide more value to everyone involved. You'd pay more attention to the ad (since you're no longer being bombarded by them), you'd be more likely to buy the advertised item (since it's perfectly targeted to you), advertisers could perfectly track your reaction to the ads, ads would constantly interrupt your shows....etc etc etc.

Apr 8, 2014
Scott, have you seen Wayne's World? What you are proposing will eventually lead to this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=351nnBDxx00
+8 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 8, 2014
Technology that removes commercials already exists, as many people have pointed out. Some have even mentioned that various !$%*!$%* that rely on commercials have responded in the past with lawsuits and other attempts to prevent that technology from blocking commercials.

While some of those attempts have been successful, by and large there's a guaranteed end to how commercials are displayed now. With DVRs and the ability to fast-forward, the networks are moving to a far more insidious method to get eyeballs on the ads. In tv lingo, it's called the "lower third", which is when they cover the bottom third of the ACTUAL CONTENT of the show with ads! This is where things are going - they'll just cram the ads in while the show is playing, covering half the content. If you want to see "all" the show, then you can buy the DVD when it's out. Personally, I'd rather have the commercial break than ruin the show.
Apr 8, 2014
Interesting idea - although I think with some tweaks, it doesn't need to kill the tv industry.

Rather than switch channels (which is what the networks will despise), I think the networks should have genre's of better commercials. The genre's could be grouped into themes, whether it be entertainment, technology, auto, etc. Let the consumer decide what type of advertising type content he/she is interested in. This is kind of similar to Hulu's approach where the watcher gets to pick between 3 different commercials to watch.

I think this needs to go hand-in-hand with better commercials. Rather than 30 second spots, have better produced commercials that are 60 seconds or longer. Show music videos or movie trailers during commercial breaks. If you have better commercials that consumers personally subscribe to via genres, you'll get higher engagement from the audience during commercial breaks, less annoyance from commercial breaks, and you don't kill the industry.
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