Fringe, which premieres tonight, is one of two shows that will have 10 minutes of commercials per hour rather than nearly 20, like most shows today. (The other is the upcoming Dollhouse.) This piece from the New York Times makes it a little clearer why Fox is doing this: the theory is that if the commercial breaks are shorter, people will be less inclined to fast-forward over them, and advertisers will be willing to pay more to run commercials that people will actually see.
I don’t know if Fringe is a great test case for this theory, though. It’s not just that the show doesn’t appeal to me yet; that can change with subsequent episodes, and besides, if the ratings are good it won’t matter what I think. But to popularize the idea of longer running times, a show doesn’t only need to get good ratings; it needs to demonstrate that a 50-minute show is feasible and that the long running times provide a creative advantage. But J.J. Abrams’ shows are very expensive to make, which could potentially make that extra running time a big drain on the budget — tonight’s two-hour pilot has 10 minutes’ more content than the two-hour 90210 premiere, and 10 minutes cost lots of money to produce, particularly when you’re a fairly cost-inefficient producer like Abrams. And shows like Lost and Alias probably benefited from the short running times; the fast pace and short scenes demanded by this format fit right in with Abrams’ style, whereas Fringe, as Bill Brioux points out, feels slow in spots.
The kind of show that would benefit most from a longer running time is a primarily non-serialized show with self-contained stories; that kind of show could really use a few extra minutes to develop character and let the scenes play out, instead of spending all the time on plot mechanics. I’m not saying that Fringe can’t do that too, as long as it gets better after the pilot, but figuring out how to use that extra time will be tricky because this is a type of show that was really invented for the 40-minute hour.