That's the conclusion of the ongoing clutter watch conducted by the Alliance, the informal pairing of the media departments of J. Walter Thompson USA and Ogilvy & Mather.
ABC was the most cluttered network, with an average of 15 minutes, 24 seconds of non-programming time per hour. NBC was second at 14 minutes, 56 seconds; Fox, third at 13 minutes, 54 seconds; and CBS, fourth at 13 minutes, 41 seconds.
For all of 1999, ABC averaged 15 minutes of non-programming time in prime time, up from 14:04 in 1998. NBC was next at 14:51, up over a minute from 13:42 in 1998. CBS was up 47 seconds to 13:46; while Fox was up only 10 seconds, to 13:36.
"This is not a healthy trend," said David Marans, senior partner, media research director at JWT.
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While Mr. Marans decried the amount of clutter, saying that it made it more difficult for marketers' messages to get through to consumers, he conceded that until advertisers take a major stand against clutter, the networks were not likely to reverse the trend.
Part of the reason non-programming time is up is because the networks are selling more national commercials, he said.
"With the dot-com explosion, it's a healthy marketplace for them. At the same time, some of the traditional network advertisers, like the package-goods companies, have pulled back. My message to the networks, though, is be careful that you don't forget your old friends when you develop new ones."
The Alliance results come on the heels of the annual clutter survey by the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers, released last week.
That survey, which only measures two weeks -- one during the May sweeps and one during the November sweeps -- found all Big 4 broadcast networks reached all-time highs in clutter. ABC led the way with almost 17 minutes of nonprogramming material per hour.
ABC executives were quick to criticize the Four A's/ANA study for measuring only two weeks.
However, it's unlikely the ABC executives could make the same claim about the far more extensive Alliance study, which is based on minute-by-minute measurements by Nielsen Media Research.
One ABC executive asked to comment about the Alliance study declined to do so.
Mr. Ross is editor of Electronic Media.