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"Brevity," said Polonius in Shakespeare's Hamlet, "is the soul of wit." If only that were true on television, where genuine wit is hard to come by and brevity is virtually a thing of the past.

Most television programmes these days, like most big-budget movies, are too long for their own good.

It used to be that a standard BBC or ITV documentary, light entertainment show or regular drama series episode ran for no more than 50 minutes -- although on ITV, the ad breaks before, during and after a programme artificially beefed the running time up to a full hour.

There were occasional exceptions, of course, including Christmas specials of something like The Morecambe and Wise Show, or an edition of Play for Today, which could run for anything from 50 to 90 minutes.

Very occasionally you might also find a single documentary deemed worthy and important enough to break the time barrier. A number of crusading journalist John Pilger's films for ITV, for instance, ran to almost feature length. But in general, 50 minutes was regarded as the optimum running time for everything except sitcoms.

(You'll have noticed that I've made no mention of RTE. That's because then, as now, it didn't produce enough regular dramas or documentaries, excluding weekly current affairs programmes, to justify inclusion.)

Times have changed, of course. Now every episode of a BBC drama or documentary series tends to run for 60 minutes instead of 50, presumably in an attempt to streamline and standardise schedules.

Similar programmes on ITV and Channel 4, meanwhile, are interrupted by three, four or even five ad breaks, where once there were two per hour. Satellite channels such as Sky Atlantic and FX are even worse offenders in this regard, with additional ad breaks adding 10 or even 15 minutes to a standard drama.

As a television reviewer, I find myself wishing that the old rules still applied. Take this week's opening episode of the new series of BBC1's Who Do You Think You Are?, which followed EastEnders star June Brown as she traced her Jewish ancestry across Europe. The central story had been wrapped up in 40 minutes, yet the need to fill time meant it meandered on for another 20, blunting the initial emotional impact.

And it's not just the running time of an individual programme that can try the patience; increasingly, the length of drama serials is ridiculously overblown. ITV's supernatural drama Marchlands ran for five episodes during the summer. Well-produced and well-acted as it was, three parts would have sufficed, especially since anyone who's ever read a ghost story would have had the mystery figured out by the second episode.

This hyper-inflation is also present in documentary series. TV3's The Tenements is admirable, but at best there are two hours of solid material in it. Someone, however, felt the need to bulk it up to three hours by shoehorning in a reality-TV element that slows the pace without adding anything to the story.

It's not a case of modern viewers having attention spans too short to absorb complex material; it's a case of modern television spreading the available material too thinly to hold the attention.