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Spike's Supersized Ad Breaks Buck TV's Clutter-Busting Trend

Over-Stuffed Pods Cram in Up to 20 Advertisers, Raising Buyer Ire and Concern Inventory Is Being Devalued

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- We'll be right back after these commercial messages. Will you?

Spike TV has turned the venerable commercial break into a commercial marathon. During certain broadcasts of "Entourage," the Viacom cable channel has quietly run ad breaks ranging anywhere from six minutes in length to something approaching an eyebrow-raising 10 minutes in total. In some cases, the ad breaks are longer than segments of the show, episodes of which have in recent weeks taken as long as 48 minutes to run.

'Entourage': Spike has some challenges when running the bawdy show set in Hollywood; original episodes often have to be cut to meet basic cable standards.
'Entourage': Spike has some challenges when running the bawdy show set in Hollywood; original episodes often have to be cut to meet basic cable standards.

Commercial breaks, known in the industry as "pods," once offered an opportunity for quick trips to the bathroom or to grab a snack from the fridge. Viewers could use the "Entourage" ad breaks to brown a chicken for a casserole or walk briskly around the block. Should viewers have remained in front of their sets, they would have endured something perhaps even more onerous. The same ad from the same advertiser -- Burger King, Pep Boys or Unilever's Axe among them -- was broadcast several times over the course of multiple episodes.

"Viewers don't like clutter," said Debbie Solomon, managing director-business planning, at WPP's MindShare. She has studied the effects of "commercial loads" since the 1980s. "Every study we've seen on the subject says the same thing: More clutter is bad for your commercials."

Viewer interest has long been known to drop off the longer a commercial break lasts. Yet the issue continues to be a sore spot for ad buyers considering cable. Many general-entertainment cable outlets will jam more commercials into a particular program when they can -- as anyone who has watched a three-hour airing of "Lethal Weapon" or "Office Space" can tell you. It's one thing to pad a show with more ad interruptions; it's another to run ad breaks so long they could send viewers fleeing to another channel. The problem is compounded by viewers who own digital-video recorders and can skip past ads the very moment a commercial break seems to get too long, dull or irrelevant.

"This is not the direction that television is going in. Television is going the other way, to have shorter breaks so that people can't just skip our advertising," said Ed Gold, advertising director at State Farm Insurance. The company had its ads appear in two different ad breaks each about nine minutes in length during Spike telecasts of "Entourage" episodes Friday, Aug. 27. "I will tell you right now, we at State Farm find an eight-minute-to-10-minute commercial break unacceptable," he added.

On Aug. 27, some "Entourage" segments were about four minutes in length, while some runs of commercials that night ran as long as eight or nine minutes. One ad break even ran as long as 10. Minutes devoted to ads and promos accounted for more than half of each episode's 47-to-48-minute run time that evening. By Friday, Sept. 3, Spike appeared to have pulled back: Some "Entourage" segments lasted as long as five minutes, while six to seven minutes were devoted to ad breaks. Episodes were clocked at 39 to 40 minutes.

To be sure, Spike has some challenges when trying to run "Entourage." The episodes of the bawdy HBO show about a movie star and his pals often have to be cut to meet basic-cable standards of decency, leaving Spike to fill extra time (The length of "Entourage" episodes can vary, but are typically delivered to Spike between 21 and 24 minutes in length). Ratings for the program have not been stellar since Spike started running it in January; the network paid a hefty fee of around $600,000 per episode, according to several press reports.

"We don't want to put our customers in an environment that is not appropriate for their commercial messages," said Jeff Lucas, exec VP-sales, at MTV Networks' Entertainment Group. "If there's a problem, we'll fix it."

One way to change the situation might involve pruning the number of commercials running end to end. To build a 10-minute ad break Aug. 27, Spike started off with a promo for its UFC programming, then ran spots for DirecTV; Unilever's Axe shampoo; B.F. Goodrich; Schering-Plough's Zegerid OTC; Jack Link's beef jerky; VF Corp.'s Lee Jeans; Screen Gems' latest "Resident Evil" movie; AT&T; Miller Lite beer; and Progressive Insurance.

But wait, there's more: Ads also ran during the break for PepsiCo's Mtn Dew soda; Pep Boys; Trojan condoms; Outback Steakhouse; Mobil motor oil; Sony Corp.'s Vaio laptop; Diageo's Captain Morgan Lime Bite rum; Kraft Foods' Dentyne gum; a DVD for the FX program "Sons of Anarchy"; and UFC action figures. The break was then garnished with what appeared to be two ads from local cable operators. Other popular marketers with ads in the extended "Entourage" breaks included Allstate, Domino's, Yum Brands' Taco Bell, Colgate-Palmolive's Colgate Wisp, Mars' Snickers and Esurance.

One ad-buying executive frowned. "We know every network at times shoehorns in additional commercials to boost revenue, especially in programs with higher unit costs," said Andrew Donchin, director of investment at Aegis Group's Carat. "But this situation is especially egregious and very troubling. It not only devalues the commercial messages but, unfortunately, also raises the suspicion that other networks may be playing the same games."

Ad breaks measured recently on other networks appear significantly shorter. On Cablevision Systems' AMC, a recent broadcast of the 1971 film "Dirty Harry" included ad breaks that seemed to last about four minutes. On Time Warner's TNT, a recent Monday broadcast of "The Closer" appeared to contain breaks of a similar length. On CBS, a recent rerun of "The Good Wife" appeared to contain ad breaks that lasted about three minutes in length, though one break contained commercials from the local station and lasted nearly five minutes.

Spike and its fellow Viacom cable outlets may be under some pressure, according to Derek Baine, a senior analyst at SNL Kagan. In the second quarter of 2010, cable outlets owned by others including Comcast, Discovery, Scripps, Cablevision and Time Warner saw ad revenue increase 13% to 21%, while those owned by Viacom's grew only 4%, Mr. Baine said. As such, the Viacom channels are "trailing the industry," he added. Viacom executives indicated in a recent conference call with investors that they were "encouraged" by ad-sales momentum in the third quarter, thanks to new programs on MTV and Comedy Central.

TV networks have in recent years tried to cut down on the overall amount of "clutter," or non-program time, on their channels. In 2006, the average amount of air time devoted by broadcast networks to either commercials or promotions for network shows was flat at about 15 minutes per hour, after rising 3% in 2005. On cable, growth in commercial or promotion time slowed to 1% from 5.5% in 2005, according to data from MindShare.

Since that time, the two TV venues have inched in different directions. In 2009, the average time for broadcast networks totaled 14 minutes and 21 seconds per hour and around 15 minutes and 53 seconds per hour for cable networks, said MindShare's Ms. Solomon.

Too much of this stuff leaves TV viewers with foggy heads. "The human mind tends to remember about seven to nine things," she said. "You put too many commercials in and people don't remember them."

And now, let's return to our show.

What gets crammed into a 10-minute break?

To build a 10-minute ad break Aug. 27, Spike started off with a promo for its UFC programming, then ran spots for DirecTV; Unilever's Axe shampoo; B.F. Goodrich; Schering-Plough's Zegerid OTC; Jack Link's beef jerky; VF Corp.'s Lee Jeans; Screen Gems' latest "Resident Evil" movie; AT&T; Miller Lite beer; and Progressive Insurance.

Ads also ran during the break for PepsiCo's Mtn Dew; Pep Boys; Trojan condoms; Outback Steakhouse; Mobil motor oil; Sony Corp.'s Vaio laptop; Diageo's Captain Morgan Lime Bite rum; Kraft Foods' Dentyne gum; a DVD for the FX program "Sons of Anarchy"; and UFC action figures. The break was then garnished with what appeared to be two ads from local cable operators.

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