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.


Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +30
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
Apr 8, 2014
I actually like the commercial breaks during live TV. Gives me a chance to check twitter, text friends, or see how my fantasy team is performing. Of course, I usually only watch live TV during major events (Oscars, Mad Men season premier) or sports, which lends itself to this sort of viewing. My wife likes to record the noon football game and start watching at 12:45 to skip all the commercials. I don't like it because I know exactly how my team is doing thanks to fantasy football updates. I just wish the commercials weren't so damn loud so I can focus on other things while they're running.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 8, 2014
What you and I view as annoyance is the life blood of network television. Attempts to filter out commercials from content have been met with lawsuits, threats, and new countermeasures. Whatever solution anyone comes up with will be met immediately with countermeasures to make the solution obsolete. If advertisers and networks have their way, they would beam commercials directly into your brain if they could get away with it.

The only way to filter out commercials from content is the pay-for-view route such as Netflix or Amazon Prime. I use both and prefer the ability to freeze a program whenever I want and take breaks or do things. It ultimately comes down to the economics and how much we are willing to pay for content without commercials and the quality of programming.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 8, 2014
We labor so assiduously to relieve ourselves of the burden of consciousness...
Apr 8, 2014
Just found this on the web:


Also I know Dish Network has an "AutoHop" feature on their DVRs but only if you watch the show the day after it's recorded.
Apr 8, 2014
I also stopped watching TV about a year ago. My cable connection broke down and I switched to watching TV serials on my computer. Now I just can't bear to sit through the commercials. Don't know if its the same abroad but here in India, the last half hour of a movie on TV consists of more ads than movie.

On a related note, what I always used to wish for was a TV that would not allow the ads to play at a volume louder than the program. The short ad breaks were simply irritating but the blaring noise during the ads was unbearable.
Apr 8, 2014
I like the idea of crowdsourcing the information, but I think that the challenge would be in the integration with the DVRs that many/most people get from their cable company.

Scott, interestingly enough, the terms of service for this site include "In addition, your activities on the Web Site and in connection with the Materials will not: cover or obscure any notice, banner or advertisement on the Web Site;". ;-)

Let me also add that I am enjoying your book. Almost at the mid-point.
Apr 8, 2014
Actually it was only when I read this blog entry that I realised I had developed my own work-around.

I automatically wait 15-20 mins before I start watching programs, and begin by rewinding to the beginning - that gives you enough margin to fast-forward thru the ad breaks as they come and rejoin the live action just before the end.

What I really one someone to invent is car radio that switches to another station with music as soon as the DJ/ad break/discussion panel kicks in. Does that exist?
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 8, 2014
At the first commercial on a live program, I'll hit record and go watch something else so I can skip the commercials.

Btw, the last spot is a promo for another show because that spot is there for local ad sales. If your local station hasn't sold the ad time, then the network promo runs.
Apr 8, 2014
Each show and commercial has a color control pattern between frames in the vertical interval reference (VIR), inserted by the studio when the video was produced. A smart set can use this to keep the color adjusted as the video source changes. The pattern and distortion are exactly the same throughout the program, but are a little different for each video production source. A commercial killer could identify the pattern and distortion for the program and then treat any change as a commercial. When the program resumed, the saved pattern would match the VIR signal again. It's possible that once in a while a commercial would have exactly the same color control pattern and distortion, but it's very unlikely.
Apr 8, 2014
There is software available now to do this called COMSKIP. It was a Sage TV add on and has been ported to other do it yourself DVR platforms. There was a rumor going around when Tivo first hit the market that they made a deal with the networks not to build in commercial skip software into the Tivo and for this consideration, Tivo was given a pile of money for "research and development". Tivo, like Sage TV (which I still use) implements a 30 second skip button on the remote that I like better than total removal. Sometimes you need the commercial time for bio breaks and snacks.
Apr 8, 2014
I don't have Cable, just Roku, and I hate commercials as much as the next person but I noticed something recently about the effects of not having commercials anymore:

I was watching Seinfeld on DVD with my girlfriend and another friend came over. (We were killing time before a party). The friend would consistently be quiet for a few minutes at a time, then finally start talking over the show. Eventually he'd shut up, then start again a few minutes later. My brother does the same. So does my girlfriend when it's the two of us. She'll get bored during a commercial-less show and try to get me to pay attention to her.

I don't think they are rude. But I'm just wired to not want to engage during a show. It's hard for me not to pay attention to the story. Which brings me to commercials......

I'm starting to think that frequent breaks are actually very important for watching tv in any kind of a social situation. It gives people a chance to chat, stretch, refocus their attention, and generally be social. Then everyone can quietly get back to the content.

Commercials are annoying when you're in solo mode. But I've found that a lot of people can't adjust to commercial-less content in a social/casual tv setting. Anybody else agree?
+12 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 8, 2014
Can technology detect the beginning and end of commercials? Yeah - I've been doing it for 7 years with pretty good success. Just a pretty simple PC app from Happauge. That said, I quit cable/satellite about a year ago, so things might have changed since then.
Apr 8, 2014
The beginning and end of commercials is easily detected -- there is a signal included in the transmission. The first DVRs to come out included commercial skipping technology -- it could record shows, but not record commercials.

Naturally, like all new technology, the TV/entertainment industry responded like they did with VCRs: they tried to sue the crap out of everyone. They still don't want people to skip commercials, and are trying to get DVR builders to remove the 30-second "jump ahead" feature.

I think Disney has made deals with various cable providers (who also provide DVRs) so that, for some content, the "jump ahead" feature is disabled.

Side note: I was watching a series of shows on Netflix, and I started missing the commercial breaks -- its hard to watch 2-3 hours of mindless drivel without some other mindless drivel to interrupt it.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 8, 2014
This sort of thing sounds awesome, and fairly doable (given enough tuners and compute) but I'm sure the MPAA would spend hundreds of millions on buying congresscritters to outlaw this practice. Your best bet for this sort of thing is an open-source project like MythTV that can already do commercial detection and deletion. But if it were sold as a complete product, that product wouldn't be able to exist for long.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 8, 2014
Kurt Vonnegut wrote about such device. I'm not sure in which novel, but eventually all ended in destruction of the world (as far as I vaguely remember).
Apr 8, 2014
When I was in high school (this was probably in 1999 or 2000), a couple guys from MIT visited our school to demo a project they were working on. They had created a commercial skipping device for recorded VHS tapes. It could, fairly reliably, detect a difference in signal (or something) between the actual show and the start and finish of commercials. It would trigger the VCR to fast forward and play at the correct times.

It seems like this would be easy to accomplish now. I'm sure networks hate that you even have the ability to fast forward through recorded shows.
Apr 8, 2014
Hi Scot - For obvious reasons, technology that allows commercials to "self-identify" won't happen. Commercials are funded by people who want them seen. There have been many attempts at detecting commercials with some success (example: there's a complete black frame between the show and commercials which some "skippers" detected (although it made it harder to watch "Law and Order" :-)) and some technologies are getting smarter deteching changes in contrast, frame rate, volume, and time. But it is true that a successful app would kill broadcast TV (no one would fund commercials that people don't watch).

But don't worry, we're going down that road anyway. As a futurist, I'm sure you can see that the Netflix (subscription) or Hulu (commercials you cannot skip) models will be the primary ones in a few years. The dark side, of course, is that the cost of watching will go up, considerably. With no advertisers to subsidize the programming, it's possible every channel will be priced like HBO. But the model will also become more efficient (unwatched channels will disappear). Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I don't know.

Also - sometimes there are ads for the next show in the middle of a block. The broadcasters know you're trying to skip, and if we go down the ever-smarter-DVR path there will be an arms race before it settles out :-).

+20 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 8, 2014
Remember the old days, when no one paid for TV and that was the justification for commercials? Now that most people pay, and the commercials are longer than the actual program, I think it's time the TV industry had a readjustment.
But that's from someone who gave up on TV entirely last year.
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog