I see this from time to time during commercial breaks: all of a sudden, a commercial will play for a split second, no more than 2 or 3 seconds but then get cut off. Why does this happen? Is this a time restraint issue?

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    From my limited programming experience (I had a local Public Access show for 2 years, and often helped out at the station), sometimes people just push the wrong buttons. I'd think most of it is done by computers these days, but back then I'd seen a few people cue up the wrong tape, hit the button, realize what they did wrong and then hit the proper deck. Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 19:52
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    It may also be related to a national/local ad feed. A certain percentage of ad time, even on cable channels, goes to local advertisers, so if the main commercial feed contains a full slate of national ads, splicing in a local ad may be off by a small amount of time. This is utter conjecture, though... I have no clue if it's the case.
    – Catija
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 19:59

1 Answer 1


There are many possible reasons for this.

Assuming automated control:

  • A sequence of commercials has been cued up to play from a video server, and then one was removed from the schedule after the video server had started playing it (to allow frame-accurate play-out, the command to start a commercial is sent a little before it is needed to account for server latency)
  • A local/regional commercial is meant to play, but the synchronization signal is mis-matched or mistimed for the equipment the commercial is being played from so it starts a little late, after the network commercial has started airing
  • A video server glitch in the server playing out commercials
  • A video server failure causing a new server or commercial to be played if, say, no sound is detected for the commercial which is replaced

Or, for manually controlled payout:

  • For a live sports (or other) event, the producer has decided to return to the main event just after the commercial was started
  • A regional / local commercial is started manually as soon as the operator recognizes a network commercial to be substituted

There are probably dozens of other possible reasons as well - these are just off the top of my head five years after leaving the industry.

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    One additional scenario, that is a variation on your second example, while most commercials are scheduled for a particular time, for sports events they are run during breaks in the action, like the end of an inning in baseball, etc. I can't remember the exact mechanism (this was some 20 years ago when I was writing code to control the tape playback machines at DirecTv) they would get an audio tone at the beginning of the commercial break, to allow a local commercial to replace the national feed. If the tone was late for some reason, you would see the beginning of the national commercial.
    – tcrosley
    Commented Apr 12, 2016 at 6:08
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    This was also much more likely with tape playback since tape machines have more latency than video servers, typically. Commented Apr 12, 2016 at 8:36
  • Is it not at all possible that there is an attempt to air "subliminal" ads? Or split-second ads that someone watching latently from a DVR who might notice the weirdness and rewind and slow-mo? Because this has been my working theory and why I found this question. I have been noticing this exact phenomenon a lot lately on cable TV, and it is normally some kind of predatory "addiction recovery" business behind the ad. Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 5:03
  • @DavidRivers it seems unlikely. The theory that subliminal ads actually do anything was disproven long ago so no rational company would pay for this. And the audience who might notice and be influenced by split-second ads one can only see by stepping through the video frame-by-frame is also vanishingly small. The economics don’t make sense either way, Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 7:08
  • @James McLeod I'm not even giving credence to the efficacy of a "subliminal ad", hence my usage of quotes. Ad time is very expensive and is purchased by the number of seconds it runs, so it's very plausible that a company would purchase the smallest ad block possible, to air at the very end of the commercial lineup when it has the greatest chance of being noticed, in hopes that someone would notice and replay to try and figure out what just jolted onto the screen. I've rewound a few times myself before I got used to the phenomenon. You dismissed my theory outright while ignoring my reasoning. Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 15:59

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