Charting House

Dr. House MD Caricature Hugh Laurie

I was watching a DVR’d episode of House recently and I became aware that the amount of show between commercials was changing as the show went on. The commercials were getting closer together. Then at the end, a long run of show between the last commercial and the credits. I did what any normal person would do. I backed up to the beginning and recorded the times of the changes so I could chart it.

My first attempt was a stacked bar chart. My data looks like this:

Column B is the air type. Column C is the time it started. Column D is the duration. The stacked bar looks like this

It didn’t really work out too well for me. For one, the legend shows Show, Ad, and Intro for every instance. I hid the legend and showed data labels for one of each of the different air types. I would have spent more time making it look less stupid, but even if I could get it just the way I want, it wouldn’t tell the story in a compelling way. You can see that the blue strips are getting thinner as time marches on, but would you notice if you didn’t already know the hypothesis? If I just showed you that chart without any explanation, would you draw the same conclusion as I did? Methinks not. Here’s the source data for that chart.

Take two was a bar chart. I isolated only the show air types and plotted the duration on the x-axis and the start time on the y-axis.

Yeah, much better. A short teaser before the intro. Gradually shortening durations as the show progresses. A reversal of the trend on act VI. I get why they put the commercials closer together later in the show. Once I’ve been watching for 26 minutes, I’m enough invested that I’m willing to tolerate commercials more. Put that same commercial spacing in the first 15 minutes, and more people will find something else to watch.

But why the long one at the end? Do the writers need that much uninterrupted time to wrap it up? That was my first thought, and I think it’s correct. Kind of. When I took another look at the bar chart, I noticed that the final segment was not really that long. If I exclude the intro, it’s the fourth longest segment. Yes the writers need that much time, but it’s not that much time. It just seems long because acts IV and V are so short.

I’m sure these inter-commercial segments aren’t really called acts, but calling them acts and using Roman numerals makes me feel like a Hollywood bigshot.

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20 thoughts on “Charting House

  1. I wonder if the value of ad space, that is, the revenue generated by the ad, increases as the show progresses, such that the opportunity cost to the broadcaster is too high by the end of the show to go very long without selling the ad space.

    Wow! That was a mouth full. I hope that word salad makes sense.

  2. Great post. I’ve always known that something was going on strategically, but it’s nice to have a chart as evidence of those evil marketeers. :)

  3. It would be interesting to compare the time durations of several shows for consistancy evaluation.

  4. Personally, when I hear a statement like “this value evolves as a function of this value”, the first thing which comes to mind is a scatterplot. Why not plot the length of the segments as a function of the time the segment starts? On this examples, it really works well: the first thing you see on the chart is the fairly steady reduction of the show segments duration over time – minus the last data point.

  5. One hour contains 3600 seconds. If you don’t count the trailing intro, 1003 seconds are spent watching non-relevant material (I count the leading intro as relevant because somebody somewhere might care who the stars / guest stars etc. are). That means that 27.9% of our time is spent watching non-relevant material. If you do count the trailing intro as also being non-relevant, then 31.2% of our time is gone. How little we value our time.

  6. Dan, I noticed the same. You’d have to be crazy to watch it like that. Now, I don’t watch much TV, but I always record the shows I want to see so that I just can skip over all the ads.

  7. Nice post Dick.

    I dont bother watching it on TV anymore – solely because the advert breaks in the UK are a PITA.

    Instead I wait and buy the DVD – no breaks :-)

    Still one of the best shows around.

  8. As Blayne mentions, would be interesting to compare multiple episodes or shows – you’re making the assumption that it’s solely the commercials which govern the break, rather than the flow of the show. Perhaps those were the appropriate points in the episode to insert a break?

  9. This is why there are places like hulu and boxee. The commercials are limited (if at all).


    DVR it and fast forward through the nonsense.

  10. I noticed that pattern years ago on Saturday Night Live. I don’t watch it much anymore, and definitely not all the way to the end, but I would be surprised if the pattern has changed.

  11. Wow. I don’t understand how anyone can watch TV in the US with all those advert breaks. It’s nowhere near as bad here in the UK e.g. you never get breaks before the opening titles, although I have noticed things getting gradually worse in the past few years, especially on the crappier channels.

    Even ‘acquired’ material off the internets can be spoiled by the very obvious need to break 40-odd minutes of TV up into about 6 or 7 segments, with all the cutaways and resumes being very obvious when they are all butted up against each other.

  12. American TV is nearly unwatchable when you’re used to channels with few or no adverts, look at how BBC now makes programmes like Doctor Who or the David Attenborough documentaries: you get a 45 minute program followed by a 15 minute ‘Making of…’ segment. Obviously those 45 minute programmes become an hour long when shown with all the ad breaks, and I guess the 15 minute segment appears as an extra on the DVD.

    Some of the American shows especially on Channel 5 (eg Ice Road Truckers) seem bizarre because of all the repetition in each segment: ‘This is Joe’s first time on the ice road’ will be repeated as if it’s not been said before, time after time.

  13. Hahaha….I’m so glad I am not the only one out there who does stuff like this! I especially like this line:

    “I did what any normal person would do. I backed up to the beginning and recorded the times of the changes so I could chart it.”

    I’m not so sure we are normal but I find us interesting and enthusiastic!

  14. […] Dick is the creator and manager of the longest running Excel blog in the world, Daily Dose of Excel. Resisting the call of commercialism, Dick frequently chooses topics that are arcane, but curiously appealing – topics such as “Calculating Wind Direction” and “Charting House”. […]

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