No, Netflix isn’t saving you from 160 hours of ads per year

Netflix’s impact on commercial viewing, however important, is subtler than recent reports suggest.

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A widely circulated report claims Netflix saves its subscribers from 160 hours of commercial breaks every year.

The figure, from CordCutting.com, has certainly grabbed attention, having been picked up by plenty of other news outlets including Business Insider, BGR, and Fortune. But in reality, the claim is overblown. While Netflix has without a doubt affected advertising and the TV business as a whole, it’s probably not shaving days of commercial breaks off your life unless you’ve given up traditional TV completely.

To come up with 160 hours per year, CordCutting.com looked at Nielsen data from 2014 that counted 15 minutes and 38 seconds of commercials in each hour of television. Multiply that number by the one and two-thirds hours that the average Netflix subscriber streams per night, and you get 158.5 hours per year. (Last year, Extreamist ran a similar calculation and came up with 130 hours of ads avoided per year, based on older data that showed 1.5 hours of Netflix viewing per day.)

What’s wrong with this figure? A few things:

  • While Netflix is causing people to watch less traditional TV than they used to, overall TV viewing dropped by only three percent last year according to analyst firm MoffettNathanson. For cable subscribers, time spent watching Netflix may not displace time spent watching traditional TV. (One obvious example: People who want to watch sports aren’t tuning into Netflix as an alternative.)
  • Thanks to the DVR, traditional TV viewers don’t always sitting through ads. A study by Hub Entertainment Research from last year found that among broadcast TV subscribers who watch more than five hours of TV per week, 53 percent of that viewing is time-shifted. Roughly one third of that time shifting comes from DVRs.
  • Live-TV viewers aren’t necessarily watching ads if they’re tuning into premium channels like HBO, Starz, and Showtime, which are more popular than ever with hit shows like Game of Thrones.

Considering all these factors, Netflix’s impact on ad viewing is subtler than the six-days-per-year headline suggests. While people probably aren’t avoiding that much commercial time simply because they’re Netflix subscribers, the proliferation of ad-free video services is causing TV networks to rethink their approach to ads.

Turner, for instance, recently announced that it would reduce ad loads on TNT by at least 50 percent in its live programming, because the constant commercial breaks were causing people to tune out. NBC also announced that it would run fewer commercial breaks during Saturday Night Live in hopes that more people would, you know, watch it live. Both networks are also now dabbling in ad-free streaming services, with SeeSo and FilmStruck respectively.

That’s the real impact of Netflix and other ad-free streaming services like Amazon Prime: It's not a wholesale replacement of all commercial breaks, just fewer breaks when ad-supported TV is unavoidable.

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