In a trend that many on Madison Avenue find disturbing, the peacock network now joins ABC in airing more than a quarter hour of national commercials and national promotions during every 60 minutes of prime time. Add in local breaks, and the amount of non-programming time per hour is even greater.
NBC averaged 15:06 minutes of national non-programming time per hour in the first quarter of the year, according to MindShare's continuing Clutter Watch report. The study found that in the last three years, NBC has notched the largest increase in national commercial minutes among the four major broadcast networks, going from 8:30 minutes in the first quarter 1998 to 10:03 minutes in the first quarter of this year.
NBC declined comment.
CBS came in with 14:01 minutes of national non-programming time per hour in the first quarter, according to the study, and Fox at 14:34.
"Clearly, something has to firmly strike home for this to become a key issue at the networks," said David Marans, MindShare's media research director in New York.
He said a new study by the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau, which indicates there is an enormous difference in recall rates between the first ad in a commercial break and the fourth or fifth commercial during the same break, might finally cause the industry to pay attention to the clutter issue.
Aaron Cohen, director of broadcasting at Horizon Media, New York, and a former national ad sales director at NBC, agreed. "I hope it's finally going to be an issue with this CAB study on pod recall and pod length.
"There seems to be a major discrepancy that's occurring with overcommercialization," Mr. Cohen said, adding that he had not studied the CAB data yet.
ABC is also over the 15-minute mark in non-programming time per prime-time hour. It averaged 15:16 minutes per hour in the first quarter and became the first network to break the 15-minute barrier last year, although Mr. Marans said at least ABC had been improving in the ratings. "With NBC no longer dominating in the ratings, it's a little bit unnerving to see this growth in commercial load," he said. "We're facing a triple whammy with NBC: declining ratings, increasing clutter, and noticeably higher costs per thousand."
Added Deborah Solomon, MindShare's Chicago-based senior VP-group research director, "At what point is clutter going to get so disruptive that it'll stop?"
"It's probably not going to stop until there's a slowdown in demand," said Mr. Cohen, who spent many years on the NBC side of the table. "Ratings at the broadcast networks have been sliding for years, but the robust economy has meant demand for airtime is at record levels. So the networks have added commercials and CPMs have risen."
Thus the networks have had little incentive to pay attention to, and reduce, clutter.
Marketers are somewhat culpable as well. Though more clutter reduces the effectiveness of each ad, they have not been willing to press the issue with the networks.
Some of the worst offenders, clutterwise, during January, included ABC's "Drew Carey" and "Dharma & Greg," and NBC's "Friends" and "Just Shoot Me," according to the MindShare study. On the other side of the ledger, Fox's most popular shows, including "The X-Files" and "The Simpsons" were among the least cluttered prime-time fare.
The MindShare study also noted that of the four cable networks it studies on an ongoing basis -- ESPN, Lifetime, TNT and USA -- USA had the most national clutter per hour, with 14:24. That's well under the clutter on ABC and NBC, and 10 seconds under Fox. ESPN has the least clutter of the four, averaging 11:13 minutes of non-programming time per prime-time hour.
Mr. Ross is editor of Electronic Media.