His cancer had spread. The diagnosis was bad. Fatal, in fact. After years of fighting, he was ready to give up. In his darkest moments, he even considered taking his own life. He left his wife notes that read “Kill me.”
And just when he did, the movie cut to a commercial for a reality competition show called Crime Scene Kitchen.
This is not a hypothetical scenario. This tonal whiplash occurred recently while I watched the documentary Life Itself on an ad-supported streaming service. During one of the film’s darkest moments, the stream cut to a kitschy commercial making fun of crime scenes. (Featuring Joel McHale!) It came without any sort of warning. The ad started right in the middle of a scene. It practically started in the middle of a sentence. It’s hard to imagine a less pleasant juxtaposition. In an instant, the spell the movie had cast was totally shattered.
If you watch movies on one of the many free streaming services that have sprouted online in the last few years, you know this feeling. Ad-supported streaming barely existed a few years ago; now it is almost as prevalent as its subscription-based cousin. There’s Tubi TV, which began in 2014 as an independent site and is now owned by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Corporation. There’s Pluto TV, which apes the format of cable television with numerous streaming “channels,” along with a library of on-demand movies and shows; it was acquired by ViacomCBS in 2019. There’s Xumo, owned by Comcast, and IMDb TV owned by Amazon (who also controls Prime Video, a service with no ads). One of the oldest of the sites, Crackle, used to be a part of Sony. Now it’s a subsidiary of Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment. Yes, the famous self-help book series has become a Nasdaq-traded company that owns its own film studio and streaming site that distributes non-soup-related content.
The problem with these services is not the ads themselves. Commercials are a reality of television and have been for its entire existence. I am not a snob about them. (After all, I work on a website supported by ads.) I didn’t get my first DVR until I was 25 years old. I went 9,000 days of my life contentedly sitting through commercials. I had no conception of a world without them. And I enjoyed many movies on television despite their ads. I used to watch endless marathons of the James Bond and Rocky films on basic cable, interrupted every 20 minutes or so by promotions for diet soda or potato chips. The first time I watched one of my all-time favorite movies, The Sting, it was on network television. It was filled with commercials. I didn’t care.
No, the issue isn’t the fact that these streaming services inject commercials into their movies, it’s that they do it so sloppily. The ads do not come at regular intervals. They appear at random. Cable and broadcast networks pay a little more attention to what they’re doing. They wait for lulls in the action. Some use bumpers to ease the viewer out of the movie and into the advertisements; others deploy quick dissolves or fades to black. They give you at least a little notice that they are coming. And they often front-load the commercials on early scenes so that the excitement of the final act can air relatively uninterrupted.
Not these streaming sites. They will drop you into a commercial at any moment. And like my Life Itself example, they don’t care about the content of the scene, or the subject of the ads, or whether one might play awkwardly with the other. While television commercial breaks might contain three or four ads, some streaming ad breaks go on for upwards of 180 seconds. Occasionally they’ll have so little ad inventory, they’ll show you the same clip multiple times in a single break. If the entire system of streaming commercials isn’t performed by unfeeling computers with no concept of human emotion or fictional drama, it sure feels like it is.
The only free streaming site that I use that does this remotely well right now is Peacock. I recently watched Zack Snyder’s 300 there. Peacock’s stream had five ad breaks. Each one had just one or two individual commercials. The timeline at the bottom of the screen indicated where each of them fell in the course of the movie so there were no surprises. The last one came 50 minutes into the film — meaning the entire final hour, along with all of the Spartan’s final stand, proceeded without an appearance by a wacky cartoon general trying to sell me car insurance. If you have to put commercials in a movie, that’s the way to do it.
I’m not asking for an ad-free experience; if I want that, I will go to Netflix or Prime Video. All I want is the minimum amount of care; to feel when I watch something that a human being has at least glanced at the programming before I have to ensure a little quality control. I know the old saying that you get what you pay for. On some of these sites, the experience is so crummy that free feels like a ripoff.
It is not likely to get better any time soon. Just recently, HBO Max announced they were introducing a new tier of their service that will cost five dollars less a month — with ads. “HBO Max With Ads” will offer the regular service’s entire library (minus the Warner Bros. same-day streaming premiere movies) with commercial interruption. I can see it now: Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” swells as Tony Soprano lifts his head to look at the door of Holsten’s Diner, only to see… an ad for mayonnaise. New look, same great taste.