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The new TV season opened last week with something scary for advertisers and viewers alike: the 5-minute commercial break.

In four hourlong shows selected at random by Advertising Age, two on NBC -- "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "The West Wing" -- contained breaks lasting more than 5 minutes. ABC's "Once & Again" had a commercial break lasting close to 4 minutes, 30 seconds, while the longest break on Fox's "Beverly Hills, 90210" lasted about 3 minutes, 40 seconds.

Clutter has increasingly become a big issue in the network TV environment.


"It's a frightening trend," said Kate Lynch, VP-director of research for Starcom Worldwide, Chicago, the media unit of Leo Burnett Co. "We hope it doesn't increase any further."

"It's a very big problem," added Steve Sternberg, senior VP-director of broadcast research for TN Media, New York. "Beyond just remembering the commercials, when you begin having commercial breaks lasting 4 or 5 minutes, people start switching channels."

The long commercial breaks don't appear to be impacting ratings -- at least during premiere week.

Despite two breaks of about 5 minutes each, "The West Wing" tied with two ABC sitcoms -- including the season premiere of "The Drew Carey Show" -- during Wednesday's 9 p.m. hour for the No. 2 position among adults 18-to-49, according to preliminary data from Nielsen Media Research.

Both NBC and ABC recorded a 6.1 rating/16 share in the demo for the hour; only the popular "Country Music Awards" special on CBS did better in that demographic category.


Still, media consultant Erwin Ephron said the breaking point is in sight.

"Advertisers and agencies, as much as they moan and groan, are complicit with the networks in that they want [ad] prices to be reasonable enough for them to be able to afford television. So that means they get clutter," he said. "They'll continue to pay and grumble until somebody demonstrates that it's having such a great effect that television no longer is the value it was. And I think we're fairly close to that."

The longest break in the shows observed was about 5 minutes, 20 seconds, during "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," broadcast Sept. 20. The show also had a break lasting about 5 minutes, 8 seconds.


The 5-minute, 20-second break contained 19 separate messages, including seven local and network promotions and ads for The Gap, Toyota Motor Sales USA, Universal Home Video and Warner-Lambert Co.'s Listerine, among others.

Ms. Lynch said the most advantageous positions for marketers in such long breaks are either at the start or "near the end, when viewers who might have tuned away are tuning back into the show."

One media executive observed that viewers actually prefer longer breaks after upwards of 15 minutes of programming than shorter breaks that are only 5 minutes apart.

"That's nonsense," responded Mr. Sternberg. "People never had that. They had a 21/2-minute break every 15 minutes. The longer breaks are damaging in that

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