Didn’t intend to post two Onion AV Club links in a row, but their interview with Mad Men‘s Matt Weiner addresses something I find interesting: how a guy who cut his teeth on HBO adjusts to the world of basic-cable, where you have BS&P departments and commercial breaks:
AVC: Another reality of being on AMC is that there are commercial breaks. Is the rhythm of the show influenced by anticipation of the breaks? Do you write that way?
MW: I write the show straight through. And then we find, when we’re editing, where the breaks go. You can do a lot with a commercial break—you can change days, you can suggest the passage of time. So sometimes that’s a great thing artistically, to know that’s going to be there. Obviously you’d always prefer that people see it straight through, and you don’t want them to be taken out of it by advertising, but that’s the reality of what’s paying the bills here.
AVC: There’s an art to it, though. The pilot episode of Twin Peaks, for instance, chose some really great images to put right before the breaks.
MW: I do think about it. I won’t lie. I do think about it when we finally get there. But for me, most of the time it’s a totally double-edged sword. It’s impossible for me, without getting a big wide shot of Manhattan, to convince people that it’s another day. But if we go to a commercial and we come up and people are in different clothes, you know it’s another day. The great thing is that before the first commercial, there’s a huge chunk of the show. It’s always around 20 minutes of the show without commercials, which is really helpful.
The method he describes, writing without breaks and then putting in the breaks during editing, is a time-honoured method, though it doesn’t happen much on network TV any more. TV drama pioneer Roy Huggins, creator of Maverick and many other shows, said that he believed that “a good story can break anywhere” and that he wrote without regard for where the breaks might fall; Huggins’ protégé Stephen J. Cannell, former boss of Matt Weiner’s mentor David Chase, wrote the same way. (In the pilot script of The A-Team, there are no commercial breaks indicated anywhere.) Mad Men even uses the old ’70s and ’80s method of not having clear fade-outs or fade-ins; the show just stops before a commercial break and starts again immediately after. Doing a show this way is kind of like showing a movie on commercial TV: you produce it without breaks, and then find the places where a break would be least damaging to the flow of the story. The Office, perhaps because it’s based on a commercial-free show, seems to be done like this too; it can break at almost any point that the producers want, but it doesn’t break with any great fanfare.
Other shows are written around the commercial breaks, all the way. With the huge number of commercial breaks on network TV now, writers have to think about the best place to put the act breaks, because no act (except the first act) can be very long, and they know in advance that they need to write five or six-minute segments that can sustain the viewer’s interest on their own. And of course there are the shows that don’t have a huge number of acts but still depend very heavily on the commercial breaks to enhance the storytelling. A lot of suspense/horror shows are like that; a show like Buffy would always make sure to end every act with some kind of horrific thing, followed by a cut to some character with a stunned look on his/her face, followed by a “whoosh!” music effect, followed by a cut to black.
(Some showrunners dislike this method because it sometimes — not always, but sometimes — requires the next act to fade in on the exact same scene. Putting an act break in the middle of a scene is sometimes thought of as a bad idea because it has the same problem as a cliffhanger ending: if you leave the hero in an impossible situation, the solution after you come back from the break will always seem lame.)
And still other shows try to use the break the way Weiner describes himself as using it, to do time transitions. If the writers can’t figure out a good way to indicate that a day has passed, they’ll put the commercial break at that point, and then when we fade back in and see the characters in different clothes, we’ll know that time as passed even before an expository line tells us exactly how much time it’s been.