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Call it million-dollar clutter.

One of the more amazing statistics of ABC-TV's hit "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" is the seeming audience indifference to a blizzard of commercials. In the final episode, during one 10-minute period, there was only 2 minutes of actual show time.

Though media buyers agree that so far the clutter hasn't hurt the ratings, they express concern for the long-term impact -- particularly if the trend continues to spread across prime time.

The last episode in the limited-run ABC series, on Aug. 29, ran an hour and was "Millionaire's" most successful episode, ratings-wise. The show drew an 8.7 rating in adults 18-49, as measured by Nielsen Media Research, and was seen by 22.4 million viewers; both numbers were, by far, the highest of any program broadcast that week.


Yet consider this commercial break during that episode: At one point show host Regis Philbin said, "We'll be right back in a moment."

Then came 30-second spots for AT&T Corp., De Beers Consolidated Mines, M&M/Mars and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.'s Excedrin, followed by a 30-second ABC promo. Next came a voice-over telling viewers, "'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire' continues in a moment." That was followed by 21/2 minutes worth of locally sold commercials and promos.

Finally, after 4 minutes and 45 seconds, Mr. Philbin and the contestant returned -- for a single question and answer that ran just 2 minutes.

Then the program broke for almost 3 more minutes to run commercials for Pepsi-Cola Co.'s Pepsi brand, U.S. Postal Service, Nestle USA's Carnation, Wal-Mart Stores, Kraft Foods' Jell-O and more ABC promos. Even though there were only 2 minutes of actual program material in close to 10 minutes of airtime, it didn't hurt the show's overall ratings.


In fact, according to an analysis of the minute-by-minute ratings of the program, preliminary data indicate "a clear pattern, I think, of viewers leaving at regular intervals -- presumably during the commercial breaks -- but then returning in higher numbers as the show became more exciting," said Kate Lynch, VP-research at Starcom Worldwide, Chicago.

"Right now, the show's the new, hot, fresh thing, so viewers are saying they don't care about a long break like that," said David Marans, senior partner-director of media research at J. Walter Thompson USA, Chicago. "But if the show eventually becomes less interesting to viewers . . . breaks like that just hasten its demise."

An upcoming clutter report from JWT and sister shop Ogilvy & Mather, New York, shows that for the first six months of the year, in prime time ABC averaged 10 minutes and 12 seconds of national commercials an hour. It's the first time a

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