Skip to main content

Upfronts season is upon us, and this year, ad-supported streaming services — which have historically taken a back seat to ad-free subscription platforms like Netflix — are stealing the show this year. But the ad-supported model faces plenty of challenges. In a recent survey conducted by The Harris Poll exclusively for Ad Age, we found that ad experiences can make or break  a show: most (65%) consumers agreed that they’d stop watching a show if shown too many ads. 

The key to a positive ad experience

So what makes for a positive ad experience? The survey found that context and timing are critical. In fact, an overwhelming majority of consumers (80%) said they’d prefer to see an ad before a show airs rather than during. And most consumers (61%) say they’d prefer seeing ads that are relevant to the show they’re watching — either in tone, theme or the types of products that are advertised. 

On the other hand ,seeing the show’s stars in the ad itself may be a step too far into ‘The Truman Show’ territory for most: only 48% said they’d want to see the ad featuring the stars of the show they’re watching. 

Consumers admit to tuning out ads when watching TV

By consumers’ own estimation, their engagement with ads is currently dubious at best — they’re not likely to make a purchase directly from an ad and they mostly multitask while the ads run: only 36% said they’d buy a product or service directly from an ad during a show.

The biggest challenge for ad-supported streaming platforms may be proving actual engagement with the ad spots they sell: a large majority of consumers (78%) say they multitask during commercial breaks, checking their phone or even channel surfing.

Americans are willing to shell out for an ad-free streaming experience — but there’s a viable ad-supported alternative

The survey shows that most consumers are upgrading to ad-free experiences when the option is available to them:  

  • For live TV — e.g. Sling, Youtube TV, Hulu Live — 69% report having upgraded to an ad-free version.
  • For streaming services from cable or satellite providers — e.g. Xfinity Stream, DISH Anywhere — 65% report having upgraded to an ad-free version.
  • For streaming service from a specific channel or network — e.g. Discovery+, Peacock, HBO Max — 61% have upgraded to ad-free versions.
  • For on-demand streaming services — e.g. Hulu — 67% report having upgraded to an ad-free version.

While the findings may look stacked against ad-support streaming services, a potential solution emerged for creating a workable model for consumers and streaming services alike — by giving consumers more control over when they are shown ads.

As it turns out, 56% consumers say they would interact with an ad — by answering a survey or scanning a QR code for example — in exchange for an otherwise ad-free experience.


This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of Ad Age between May 18-19, 2021, among 1,075 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online. For more information on methodology, please contact Dami Rosanwo.

Download the full data tables here.


Lucas Strombeck

Author Lucas Strombeck

Lucas Strombeck manages public relations for The Harris Poll and its brand tracking software, Harris Poll Brand Platform. Drawing on his extensive background in data-driven storytelling, he works closely with Harris Poll researchers and media partners to connect the dots between consumer insights, market trends and headline news. Before joining The Harris Poll, Lucas was a senior manager at Walker Sands, where he led PR strategy for fast-growing B2B tech startups and SaaS companies -- primarily in the martech and ad tech space. He is a graduate of Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

More posts by Lucas Strombeck
Close Menu

Brand tracking available for a fraction of the cost of custom research

Subscriptions to Brand tracking offer you continuous, real-time tracking on five brands. With your membership, our brand tracker will collect over 10,000 interviews per brand, giving you a robust ability to conduct pre-/post-testing and dive deep into various customer groups. Create an account to see a demonstration, or shoot us an email ([email protected]) to learn more.

Request a Demo