Clutter rises, even
in weak ad economy
Study: Nearly 1 in 4 primetime minutes in 2001
By Kevin Downey
Declining ratings on the broadcast networks appear to be compounding what is already one of the biggest concerns among advertisers: advertising clutter.
Despite the downturn in the ad economy last year, the number of non-programming minutes in primetime increased in 2001, according to a Clutter Watch report coming out next week by MindShare.
Nearly one out of four minutes in primetime is now a commercial or other non-programming message on the broadcast networks.
The level of advertising clutter went up about 16 seconds in the past year on the Big Four networks, to 14 minutes and 27 seconds.
Clutter is an even bigger problem in other dayparts. Daytime television, for example, has roughly 20 minutes of non-programming every hour.
Clutter also went up on top cable networks by 23 seconds to 13 minutes and 31 seconds per hour in primetime.
"What worries me is, when will we reach a point that viewers turn the TV off," says Debbie Solomon, senior partner and group research director at MindShare.
"One research study found that when commercials come on, people tend to change channels, and itís a lot harder to find the original station they were watching because there are so many commercials. So, itís having a negative impact on the medium."
Although a decline in ad spending might suggest that fewer ads would crowd out regular programming, itís thought that a decrease in advertising costs last year may have lured in more advertisers.
At the same time, the tough ad market may have caused some of the networks to squeeze more commercials in as a way to bring in revenue.
Solomon thinks that lower ratings on some broadcast networks may be the biggest cause of the problem, though.
Virtually all of the major broadcast networks have had declines this season, with ABC fairing the worst with a 20 percent decline among adults 18-49 since the season began in late September.
"My theory is that the networks and stations might be adding some additional inventory for makegoods," she says.
Makegoods are commercial spots given to advertisers for free as a way to make up for shortfalls in rating guarantees.
Compounding the problem last year was the disruption of regular programming following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Most of the networks went commercial-free for nearly a week of uninterrupted news coverage. Almost all of that commercial time had to be made up at a later date, most of which occurred in the fourth quarter.
The increased level of advertising clutter in 2001 suggests that advertising messages are becoming less effective.
Research studies conducted since the mid-1970s have shown that advertising clutter has a negative impact on a viewerís ability to remember commercial messages or brand names.
A study conducted in 1984 by Ray & Webb found that commercial recall drops by about 40 percent when advertising clutter edges past 16 minutes per hour compared to 8 minutes per hour.
The improving advertising economy could make the problem worse by driving up demand for commercial spots.
There are already indications that clutter and other distractions are increasing.
The MindShare study refers to an increased use of text messages that scrawl across the TV screen and the use of split screens to simultaneously run a programís credits while other messages are aired.
Perhaps more problematic is the advent of the Time Machine, a device that compresses TV programs and, in theory at least, allows TV stations to put more commercials on or even cut down the length of a commercial message. While several stations and TV networks have spoken out against the use of the device, itís been reported that more than 100 stations around the country have purchased it.
Of less concern for now is TiVo, which can be used to bypass commercials, mostly because its acceptance by consumers is still nominal.
Although advertising clutter has been a concern among advertisers for decades, itís a problem that defies an easy solution. Advertising demand for time on the networks, of course, is contributing to clutter while TV stations, like advertisers, are under growing pressure to increase revenues.
Some TV stations and networks, however, have begun to limit the amount of non-programming time that they air, although they remain in the minority.
"About a year ago, the Meredith stations cut some commercials from their news and saw their ratings go up," says Solomon. "They made some other changes to the news as well, but they felt the reduced commercialization contributed to the increased ratings."
April 5, 2002 © 2002 Media Life
-Kevin Downey is a staff writer for Media Life.