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What Is an Intermission?

By Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Updated May 23, 2024
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An intermission is a brief cessation of a program or performance, allowing viewers to refresh themselves before the show goes on. Intermissions also have some practical functions for the performers or broadcasting stations. In broadcasting, intermissions of a program are very short, typically lasting only one to three minutes. During a live show, however, the duration of an intermission is longer. A brief intermission is normally around five minutes, while long intermissions can last up to twenty minutes. Length of an intermission for live performances often is determined by the size of the audience, with larger audiences receiving longer intermissions.

The reason the duration of intermissions varies between live performances and those that are recorded and broadcasted is that broadcast intermissions are geared toward marketing and advertising. A main concept behind advertising is that companies have only a few seconds to catch a consumer's attention, so most broadcast intermissions have a short series of commercials, with each commercial about 30 to 60 seconds long. Many people do not watch these commercials, instead grabbing a snack or quickly using the restroom. If broadcast intermissions go longer than this, it usually is because a program had an unusual run time and the station needs something to fill the airwaves until it is time for the next scheduled program.

In a live performance, advertising is not a main focus of an intermission, although goods related to the show might be available for purchase on site. If the host does want to advertise something, the host might announce it briefly, but more often advertisements are within the printed programs for the show. Instead, the focus is to give the viewers an opportunity to use the restroom, read their programs, socialize, perhaps grab a drink from a water fountain and stretch. This takes a long time, because instead of just a few people sitting around a television, the host has to accommodate perhaps hundreds of individuals.

Behind the scenes in a live performance, hosts may use the time of intermissions to shift set pieces or lighting and audio controls. Musicians and performers in the show usually touch up their makeup, mentally prepare for the next act or song and make adjustments to their instruments if necessary. Coordinators check that all the materials are in place and that all the performers who need to be immediately present are available to go on stage, typically using walkie-talkies. Lighting cues tell the audience when intermission begins and ends, with lights up meaning the beginning and lights down meaning the end.

In broadcasting, intermissions normally are scheduled roughly every fifteen to twenty minutes. Script writers understand this and carefully craft their work so that "cliffhanger" moments happen directly before a commercial should happen. In live performance, performers are not as concerned with building tension and interest to maintain viewership. This is because people usually buy tickets for the performance in advance knowing exactly what they are going to see. Hosts thus usually place the intermission in the middle of the program, or if the show is considerably long, about a third and two thirds through the show or between acts.

One aspect of live-show intermissions that varies drastically from broadcast intermissions is the use of "filler" performances. If the host knows that intermissions will be long, the host might pull in a single performer or group to entertain during the intermission. These performers often do not have the reputation of the headline performers or show because they don't have quite as much experience, but they are talented in their own right and gain resume material from serving as the intermission act. Audiences don't go to the show specifically for the intermission shows, but they still enjoy them if they are available.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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