Almost a century ago, advertisements were so important to TV that we named an entire genre after them. Soap operas are only called soap operas because Procter & Gamble—the US personal care behemoth that makes, among many other products, bars of soap—produced a number of popular series in the 1950s and 1960s. Some shows, like Texaco Star Theater, even carried the name of their sponsors. Today, we’d call that a supercharged version of branded content.
Brands don’t directly finance specific TV shows anymore, but their ads are still the lifeblood of the industry. Since the 1940s, advertisers have filled TV networks’ coffers in exchange for the opportunity to put their messages in front of huge audiences of potential consumers.
What those ads look like, how they are evaluated for effectiveness, and the way they’re bought and sold have stayed mostly the same since the medium’s inception. TV ratings have long served as the only way networks could tell advertisers how many and, broadly, what type of viewers were exposed to their ads. The 15- to 30-second commercial break format has remained just as immutable. While filmmaking and communications technology have fundamentally changed since the first half of the 20th century, the experience of watching content on TV hasn’t. It still looks a lot like it did for your parents and grandparents.