This app wants to liberate you from wasting your time on TV commercials

Just tell me when it’s over.
Just tell me when it’s over.
Image: Reuters/Sam Mircovich
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Commercial Break, an app released today for the iPhone, seems like it serves a rapidly dying market. You tell the app which channel you’re watching on cable TV (right now it only covers a handful of US channels) and it tells you when commercial breaks start and end. A great idea, but surely a bit late for those of us who rely increasingly on DVR and give awards to shows that will never play on live TV?

But Commercial Break becomes much more futuristic when you look at its inner workings. Right now, commercial skipping for Dish Network’s Hopper service (which just won a legal battle against Fox) is totally human-powered, with each show reviewed by technicians in Cheyenne, Wyoming who manually mark the start and end of commercials. By contrast, Commercial Break’s developers, Israeli startup veterans Haim Kairy and Eli Ben-David, say they’ve created the first algorithm that can tell the difference between a TV program and commercial without human help. There have in fact been a few examples of commercial detection software, but they’re generally of dubious accuracy and not very user friendly. My own test of Commercial Break showed quick detection and a friendly user interface.

“We started off just watching TV and trying to figure out how humans would distinguish between commercials and regular programing,” Kairy told Quartz. “Some of it had to do with things we can see, like long breaks, or hear, like fades. But humans can’t see single black frames in video, which is where our programming skills came in.” The algorithm checks video streams 40 times a second for cues, like a completely black frame between a commercial and a show, so it can detect the switch in a split second.

Kairy calls the app a “useful TV companion” for those who still enjoy watching live events, and he wagers that cable, rather than internet TV, will dominate the live viewing of sporting events, season premieres, and finales for the next five years. But after that, Kairy says, the algorithm could still be used for skipping ads on shows recorded on DVRs, which he reckons people will use more and more.

And if you’re wondering how TV will fund itself when nobody watches ads any more, Kairy has a solution to that too: Charge users for skipping commercials, and hand some of the cash over to advertisers. Viewers could even be told what a commercial is about before deciding to skip it, allowing advertisers to tempt individual customers with custom-picked commercials. “I think in the future, with our technology,” Kairy said, “everything can be much more targeted and filtered.”

For now, the app is available for free—so if you’re still watching live TV, you can now channel surf during commercials to your heart’s content, and never worry about missing (more than a second) of your favorite show.