TV commercial clutter has ad buyers worried

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The TV airwaves are becoming increasingly cluttered with commercials and promotional spots.

For the first time, two major broadcast networks, ABC and NBC, have reached the 15-minute mark during prime time in per-hour non-programming minutes for an entire quarter.

In the third quarter, NBC averaged 15:03 minutes of non-programming time per hour in prime time, and ABC averaged 15 minutes, according to the latest clutter study by the Alliance. The Alliance is the name J. Walter Thompson USA and Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide use for some media joint ventures.

HISTORICAL DIFFERENCES

The increasing clutter in prime time has some on the buying side worried.

"There has historically been quite a difference in non-program time between daytime and prime time," said David Marans, senior partner and director of media research at JWT. "When you're breaking the 15-minute mark, you're starting to approach the daytime world."

This is significant, Mr. Marans said, because the networks charge a premium for ads in prime time.

"Certainly one criterion for prime's premium rates has been a substantially less cluttered environment," Mr. Marans said. "When you start to see a full 25% of an hour made up of non-programming minutes you have to say to yourself maybe prime is no longer worth that premium."

One of the statistics the Alliance finds troubling is that non-programming time is on the rise.

Compared to the third quarter last year, ABC, NBC and even CBS are each up 9% in non-programming minutes. CBS was well under the quarter-hour mark, with 13:42 minutes of non-programming time.

Another Alliance concern is how an increasing number of commercials dilutes the impact of each marketer's spots. ABC's average 10:06 minutes of network commercials per hour in prime time during the third quarter made for increased clutter.

"Compared to most cable networks," said NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa, "we are rather conservative" in NBC's amount of non-programming time.

However, an examination of the four cable networks in the Alliance study -- based on Nielsen Media Research's Monitor Plus data -- shows none of them approaching the 15-minute mark.

In the third quarter, according to the study, Lifetime Television had 13:58 minutes of non-programming time per hour in prime time, followed by USA Network at 13:06, TNT at 12:08 and ESPN at 12:04. That's up, respectively, 4% and 1% from third quarter 1998 for Lifetime and USA; TNT and ESPN were flat.

It is possible, Mr. Marans said, that some cable networks, not included in the study, do exceed 15 minutes of non-programming time.

PROGRAMS RUN SHORT

Garth Ancier, president of NBC Entertainment, said one problem the network has is that some shows such as "The West Wing" and "3rd Rock From the Sun" at times have been delivered to the network at lengths shorter than the network ordered.

There is speculation among some media buyers that the networks have been loading up on commercials of late to take advantage of the bullish market for advertising.

"Most of the networks haven't been making money, so they want to make hay while they can," one buyer said.

To which Mr. Marans retorted, "We want the networks to get fair dollar. We want them to make money. But this is now out of control. It's gotten so bad that we're afraid to look at the numbers for October and the November sweeps."

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