This article describes the situation in the United States. Other countries have had similar experiences, but most had (and have) major state-funded broadcasters which carry little or no advertising. In many countries television was developed as a cultural medium as much as (or more than) a commercial tool.
From the earliest days of the medium, television has been used as a vehicle for advertising in some countries. Since their inception in the late 1940s, television commercials have become far and away the most effective, most pervasive, and most popular method of selling products of all sorts. The radio advertising industry was well-established when television made its debut in the 1940s, and in the United States television was intentionally developed as a commercial medium, based upon radio's successful format, by the first television broadcasting networks (especially RCA, the founder and owner of the NBC Red and NBC Blue networks).
These brief commercial "breaks" that interrupt shows regularly are the primary reason for the existence of modern-day television networks. A typical 30-minute time block includes 23 minutes of programming and 7 minutes of commercials (though some half-hour blocks may have as much as 12 minutes of commercials). The programming is intended as a way to capture the attention of the audience, keeping the viewers glued to the television set so that they will not want to get up and change the channel; instead, they will (hopefully) watch the commercials while waiting for the next segment of the show. Entire industries exist that focus solely on the task of keeping the viewing audience interested enough to sit through commercials. The Nielsen ratings system exists as a way for stations to determine how successful their television shows are, so that they can decide what rates to charge advertisers for their commercial airtime.
Commercials take airtime away from programmes. In the 1960s a typical hour-long American show would run for 51 minutes excluding commercials. Today a similar program would only be 42 minutes long. In other words, over the course of 10 hours American viewers will see approximately an hour and a half more commercials than they did in the sixties. Furthermore, if that sixties show is rerun today it is almost certain to be cut by 9 minutes to make room for the extra commercials.
The TV commercial is generally considered the most effective mass-market advertising format, and this is reflected by the high prices TV networks charge for commercial airtime during popular TV events. The annual Super Bowl football game is known as much for its commercial advertisements as for the game itself, and the average cost of a single thirty-second TV spot during this game has reached $2 million (as of 2003).
Because a single television commercial can be broadcast repeatedly over the course of weeks, months, and even years (the Tootsie Roll company has been airing a famous commercial that asks "How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie pop?" for over three decades), television commercial production studios often spend enormous sums of money in the production of one single thirty-second television spot. This vast expenditure has resulted in a number of high-quality commercials, ones which boast of the best production values, the latest in special effects technology, the most popular personalities, and the best music. A number of television commercials are so elaborately produced that they can considered miniature sixty-second movies; indeed, many film directors have directed television commercials both as a way to gain exposure and to earn a paycheck. One of film director Ridley Scott's most famous cinematic moments was a television commercial he directed for the Macintosh computer, that aired in 1984. Even though this commercial only aired once, it has become famous and well-known, to the point where it is considered a classic television moment.
Many television commercials feature catchy jingles (songs or melodies) or catch-phrases that generate sustained appeal, which may remain in the minds of television viewers long after the span of the advertising campaign. Some of these ad jingles or catch-phrases may take on lives of their own, spawning gags or "riffs" that may appear in other forms of media, such as comedy movies or television variety shows, or in written media, such as magazine comics or literature. These long-lasting advertising elements may therefore be said to have taken a place in the pop culture history of the demographic to which they have appeared. One such example is the enduring phrase, "Oh no, Mrs. Burke! I thought you were Dale!", from the 1968 through 1970 Post Grape-Nuts cereal advertisements. Variations of this catchy dialogue and direct references to it appeared in other media forms even as long as two decades after the ad campaign expired. Another is, "Where's the Beef?", which grew so popular that it was used in the 1984 presidential election by Walter Mondale. And yet another popular catch-phrase is "I've fallen and I can't get up", which still appears occasionally, more than a decade after its first use.
Different types of TV commercials
The first commercial in the United States was broadcast on July 1, 1941, just before a Brooklyn Dodgers-Philadelphia Phillies baseball game. It was for the Bulova clock and watch company, showing a superimposed clock over a map of the United States, along with the announcer declaring, "America runs on Bulova time!" This commercial cost the Bulova company ten dollars to run.
In the earliest days of television, it was often difficult to perceive the boundary between the actual television programs and the commercials. Many of the earliest television shows were sponsored by single companies, who inserted their names and products into the shows as much as possible. One of the most famous examples of early television broadcasting was Texaco Star Theater, the variety show that made Milton Berle a household name. Texaco not only included its own brand name as part of the show, it also made certain that Texaco employees were prominently featured during the course of the show, often appearing as smiling "guardian angels" who performed good deeds in one way or another, while the Texaco musical logo would play in the background.
Today in the 21st century, media critics claim that the boundaries between "programming" and "commercials" have been eroded to the point where the line is blurred nearly as much as it was during the beginnings of the medium.
However, the vast majority of television commercials consist of brief advertising spots, ranging in length from a few seconds to several minutes (as well as program-length infomercials). Commercials of this sort have been used to sell literally every product imaginable over the years, from household products to goods and services, to political campaigns. The effect of television commercials upon the viewing public has been so successful and so pervasive that it is considered impossible for a politician to wage a successful election campaign without airing a good television commercial.
TV commercials outside the United States
British commercial television is not quite so relentlessly geared to the needs of the advertisers and there are fewer interruptions. Nevertheless, the amount of commercial airtime allowed by the Independent Television Authority and its successors has risen from 7 minutes per hour in the 1970s to 12 minutes today.
In many European countries television commercials appear in longer, but less frequent advertising breaks. For example, instead of 3 minutes every 8 minutes, there might be 6 or 7 minutes every half hour. Specific regulations differ widely from country to country and network to network.
The future of TV commercials
The advent of technologies such as TiVo has caused much speculation about the future of television commercials.
See also: List of television commercials, advertising, marketing