NBC MULLS FEWER, LONGER AD BREAKS: NETWORK'S GOAL IS TO STOP SURFING, BUT ADVERTISERS FRET ABOUT RECALL

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NBC is considering airing fewer, longer commercial breaks, a move that could significantly affect TV advertising.

"They are quietly floating the idea as a trial balloon," said one ad agency media executive who asked not to be named. "There aren't any details yet, and they know that initially there will be a lot of resistance by the agencies unless they somehow present this as a win/win situation."

NBC declined comment on any plans it may be considering.

Such a move, though, would underscore a dilemma facing the traditional broadcast networks: As viewership continues to erode, most have added significant commercial time.

NBC VOLUME UP 6.1%

In the first 10 weeks of the current TV season, ABC was up 11.8% in prime-time commercial volume, NBC was up 6.1% and CBS 4.8% vs. the same period last year, according to SFM Media Corp. Only Fox was down, posting a 1.1% decline.

Reducing the number of commercial breaks is seen as one way to keep viewers from channel-surfing.

"Our research shows that people who pay more attention to programs pay more attention to commercials," said Colin McCloud, research and development director, Carat Insight, London.

"My understanding is NBC feels that flow and ratings might be able to be improved if it could somehow restructure some programming so there are fewer commercial breaks," said the media executive who requested anonymity.

But agencies and advertisers are leery of any plan that would lengthen commercial breaks: Conventional wisdom says the longer the break, the less recall viewers have of commercials in the middle of the pod.

Similarly, the longer the commercial break, the higher the chance competing brands would be advertised during the same break, especially if the break includes local spots.

LOCAL VS. NATIONAL ADS

That's a problem currently when the networks run sitcoms one after another without commercials separating the programs; local ads are intertwined with national spots midway through the shows.

For example, in the April 2 episode of "Friends," the mid-point break lasted 3 1/2 minutes, with 1 1/2 minutes of national ads followed by a 25-second national promotion, 1 1/2 minutes of local ads and a 5-second local promo.

In the April issue of Ephron Letter, a newsletter written by media analyst Erwin Ephron, the executive cited "dated" studies of clutter that found "competing commercials scheduled within 30 minutes [of one another] reduce brand recall by 40%."

The NBC effort -- dubbed QNBC for "quality" -- is part of parent General Electric Co.'s Six Sigma quality-control initiative.

"It's a carryover of NBC 2000, which is that split-screen at the end of the show with the credits," said the media executive. "The network is trying to figure out how it can maximize retention while at the same time maximize revenue."

PAST SUCCESS

NBC has had some success in the past in creating a win/win situation for viewers and advertisers. For the 1996 Olympics, compared to the 1992 Games, it lessened the number of advertisers from 150 to 50, thus reducing the number of different messages viewers had to watch, pleasing advertisers and meeting network revenue goals.

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