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Are commercial-free channels an endangered species? According to The New York Times, the famously commercial-free PBS plans to start inserting spots touting show sponsors into its popular science shows Nature and Nova. The new approach, which was first floated publicly at the network’s recent annual meeting, could be extended to more PBS programming during the year.

The Times reported that one impetus for the change would be to allow PBS shows to use a “hot switch” between shows. If the sponsor messages that currently appear at the end of PBS programs are instead interspersed throughout the show’s running time, the ending of one program can butt right up against the beginning of another, denying viewers an easy opportunity to switch to another channel.

When PBS unleashes a barrage of promo messages at the end of a given show, “it’s almost as if someone pulled the fire alarm and [viewers] scrambled for the exits,” programming exec John Wilson said at the meeting. Many other channels have embraced the “hot switch” as a way to keep viewers engaged with new content as soon as the program they’re already watching has ended. If the end result really is a bigger audience for PBS shows, the network could be better off in the long run.

Tom Baker as the Doctor

But it will be interesting to see how longtime viewers react to a more fragmented approach to programming on PBS. In the end, promo breaks may feel natural in some types of nonfiction programming, but during other presentations — like a Ken Burns documentary, for example, or an atmospheric episode of Masterpiece — they could feel jarring. The move will also affect how producers put their shows together. It’s certainly better to plan for commercial breaks rather than to allow them to be inserted arbitrarily. For example, BBC America’s re-broadcasts of Doctor Who episodes that are shown commercial-free on BBC One have especially jarring commercial insertions that seriously wreck the mood and make the show difficult to watch. (The original Doctor Who series built its American audience in the 1970s and 1980s on PBS stations — which broadcast them, naturally, without commercial interruption.)

At The Atlantic Wire, blogger Adam Clark Estes notes that the news comes at a time when PBS is already in some financial trouble. Its network is consolidating, with some stations dropping out and replacing their PBS shows with less-expensive religious programming. Executives aren’t characterizing the new plan as a way to increase revenue by offering underwriters more prominent placement, but that has to be on their minds.

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Whatever happens to PBS programming in the future, it’s the end of an era for commercial-free TV, which is now the exclusive province of premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime as well as a few movie-oriented basic cable channels such as HDNET Movies and Turner Classic Movies. (IFC, for instance, started running standard commercials late last year.) For the sake of movie buffs everywhere, let’s hope these stalwart few don’t get any ideas!