Which nets are kings of clutter?

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Marketers worry endlessly about producing campaigns that break through the clutter of TV ads. Now a newly released study examines just which broadcast and cable networks have the most crowded commercial breaks, and which have the least.

The study, from strategic media auditor Media IQ, New York, notes which networks are cutting back on clutter, and reveals which are giving up prime positions to advertisers and which are keeping the best slots to promote their own shows.

Among broadcast networks, Walt Disney Co.'s ABC had the most clutter, broadcasting 7.11 messages a break, closely followed by UPN with 6.52; CBS with 6.32; NBC with 6.24; WB with 6.15 and Fox with 6.03.

The study-which compares clutter on all networks during the final quarter of 2002 with the same period in 2003-showed ABC also handed over the most number of "A" positions (the first spot in a break) to advertisers. ABC ranked No. 1 in 2002 and 2003 for least amount of A positions taken for its own promotions (0.2% in the fourth quarter of 2002; 0.7% in the fourth quarter of 2003). Time Warner's WB took the most prime positions for itself (27.9% in the fourth quarter of 2003). Both A and "L"(the last spot in a pod) positions are sought after by advertisers since viewers tend to recall those ads more.

"The study is aimed at helping advertisers rebalance the playing field, against the seller. The networks have had the upper hand," says Mike Lotito, CEO, Media IQ. The amount of clutter, he said, can be as important as the cost-per-thousand rates agencies negotiate.

The average number of paid commercials messages per commercial break, or pod, was up slightly in 2003 to 5.5, compared with 5.4 in '02, according to Media IQ research. That change in average number of units per pod is equal to somewhere around an added 15,000 commercials to inventory in 2003 prime time over 2002 prime time across 43 cable networks and seven broadcast networks, Lotito says. The average number of messages per break, which includes network promos and public service announcements as well as paid ads, was seven.

One major financial advertiser said, "It was very enlightening to see how the networks compare to each other in commercial load and how they treat the positioning of our spots. We can see things we suspected are true." This executive said shorter pods are always better and the clutter problem was more of an issue on cable networks than on broadcast. "The [broadcast] networks have been taking care of us. The cable networks don't even monitor it. Now I have some data to take to them."

moving it around

The executive now will consider spending a greater proportion of money with the cable networks that give up the prized A and L positions. "I'll still buy 20 networks, but I can shift my money around." The battle internally at the TV networks, this executive says, is always between the programmers who want to promote their own shows in the A positions and the ad-sales teams who want to look after their customers.

According to the study, Discovery Channel has worked the hardest to reduce clutter. During the fourth quarter of 2003, Discovery Channel broadcast 4.36 messages per break compared with eight in the same period in 2002.

The Weather Channel ran the least number of messages, 3.61 per break, compared with 5.15 in 2002. CNN Headline News ran 4.06 messages per break, up from 3.62 in fourth quarter of 2002. Discovery Channel ranked third with 4.36 messages, compared with 8.14 in fourth quarter of 2002.

Since news channels generally run a greater number of breaks, with fewer messages than entertainment channels, "The question is, is that a better environment?" Lotito asks.

Generally media buyers can only negotiate positioning in breaks during events such as the Super Bowl, but Lotito said some get more A positions than others. According to his data, General Electric Co. ran 126 spots during NBC's "Meet the Press" in 2003, a highly sought after show among advertisers. He says 37% of those were A positions-GE, of course, owns NBC. Xerox meanwhile bought 51 spots on NBC, gaining just one A position.

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