Who Owns the TV Screen During a Commercial Break?

Tuning In: Marketers Don't Want Networks to Fill Sides of High-Def Screens During Low-Def Commercials

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Marketers say they're distracted by the "sidebar pillars" that flank low-definition commercials on high-definition TV screens. Why?Well, just when Procter & Gamble or Papa John's thinks its ad might get your full attention -- it's paid tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars for that privilege, after all -- its commercial suddenly has to compete with vertical bars on either side that are plastered with a TV-network logo or a promotion for an upcoming show.

An example of a TV network logo flanking a commercial on TBS.
An example of a TV network logo flanking a commercial on TBS.
The Association of National Advertisers came out Friday against TV network logos and promos -- "sidebars" -- that flank low-definition commercials on high-definition screens. "The sidebar real estate of an ad belongs to the advertiser unless otherwise agreed or unless the concurrent program content is part of the regular network programming format" such as stock tickers or sports scores, the association said.

On the face of it, the demand seems backed by a narrow view. Do advertisers tell web-page publishers to empty out the rest of the computer screen while a pre-roll plays or a banner ad flickers? Do marketers insist TV networks not run promos for their own shows at the start and end of commercial breaks? Screens have long been cluttered, and so long as consumers tolerate the trend toward "media multitasking," they will continue in that vein.

But the frustration, now that marketers mention it, is understandable. When you've somehow lucked into a viewer who's not jabbing at an iPad, running to the bathroom or just fast-forwarding through your commercial, you'd like to think you at least wouldn't have to compete with the network that sold you the time.

Imagine trying to sell McDonald's Big Macs or a trip to your local Home Depot while giant letters spelling "CONAN" take up part of your on-screen real estate, as they did when Time Warner's TBS pulled out all the stops to hype the recent launch of its new late-night show featuring Conan O' Brien.

Why not make HD commercials?
One solution, of course, would be for more advertisers to produce their commercials in HD, so they fill the left and right margins of the screen themselves. According to a November report from Nielsen, high-definition TV sets are now in 56% of U.S. households. Yes, the report noted that more than 80% of television viewing remains a "standard definition experience," owing to fees required to gain HD-TV service and the fact that most homes only have one HD set, but the direction is clear. Consumers like HD and more of them are likely to adopt it over the short-term.

If that's the case, advertisers ought to allocate their ad budgets accordingly to accommodate HD commercial production -- making for a better viewing experience and in the process eliminating the opportunity for TV networks to take over the sidebars on in the first place.

Or here's an idea for the networks: Marketers could fork over a premium to add other elements to the sides of the screen. The ANA suggested "networks instead come to advertisers and add value by suggesting creative ways to use this space -– the advertiser's logo, a retail partner tie-in, etc." That sounds like asking for an extra piece of promotion, which could prompt a network to ask for more money. We leave it to the two sides to hash this out at the bargaining table.

Pot calling the kettle distracting
It's worth keeping in mind, however, that marketers are complaining about viewer distraction, but they've already set a fine standard for screen clutter during programming.

Who hasn't seen a sponsor's logo on the screen during a live sports event or halftime show? How many advertiser products get jammed into an actual TV drama or comedy over the course of a season?

Marketers, you can't get self-righteous about on-screen distractions during breaks when you're happy to crowd them in during actual program content, inserting yourself into an experience the consumer once enjoyed ad-free.

TV viewers have to suffer competing messages on the screen. Now advertisers are feeling some of their pain.

Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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