Despite popular perceptions, there are no governmental limits on how much commercial time TV stations can air. “The only thing limiting the amount of commercial saturation is consumer tolerance,” says TIME senior entertainment editor Richard Zoglin. And that tolerance is pretty high. “As long as networks and stations sneak their longer commercial breaks quietly under the radar, and as long as people want to watch the programs they want to watch,” says Zoglin, “the situation will continue.” The marketplace, however may not be as tolerant. It's no accident that the latest commercial study was prepared by the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers. While viewers may be willing to put up with the ads, or zap past them with their remote controls, advertisers want to know if all those messages are simply blitzing each other out. The answer to that question is what could really determine the fate of commercials -- and the future of the TV industry itself.
And now, a word from our sponsors -- or rather, a miniseries. American television viewers are being assaulted with more commercials than ever before: a record 15 minutes and 44 seconds' worth in an average hour of prime time, 25 seconds more than last year. Blame it on soaring television production costs and a declining per-network viewership caused by an increase in cable and cyberspace alternatives. “These twin pressures are pushing the networks hard to get more money out of their assets,” says TIME senior business editor Bill Saporito. “The result is to provide less product and sell more space.”