Clutter crisis countdown

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There are two big problems facing the TV advertising market today: The first is that nobody seems to be preparing much for the inevitable day when mass audiences to individual programs all but disappear. Second, I have not noticed anybody caring that viewers are being driven away from our ads even faster by the continual bombardment of clutter.

An editor of this very newspaper admitted as much. "Tell us something new," he said. "The clutter problem has been with us forever."

Clutter is part of the whole undermining of the economic model that underpins the broadcast TV networks. Prime-time programs shown by the networks, which attract 90% of industry attention and less than 10% of TV viewing, prop up the whole enterprise.

There is a big advertising cost premium on the 20 to 30 programs still watched by more than 5% of the population. Some reasons for the premium are better than others. But the premium is underpinned by the assumption that people watch the ads.

What's new is that five upfront markets from now there will be a tipping point. Personal video recorders will give as many as 40% of households the ability to fast-forward through ads. Clutter will give them a reason.

Of course, TV viewers can already switch channels, leave the room or turn their heads away. But Nielsen Media Research's measurement service does not pick such things up well. Even if it did, buyers and sellers still insist on dealing in "program" rather than "commercial" ratings. This is a metric that needs to change-and fast.

The news from TiVo is that TV viewers, suitably equipped, will indeed use their technology to watch, re-watch or avoid ads. For example, more than four-fifths of the viewing by TiVo owners to a host of popular shows, including NBC's "Friends," was reported last year as being watched in playback mode. Fast-forwarding through ads seems almost inevitable when it is so easy.

During the Super Bowl telecast this year, TiVo users used their fast-forward, pause and rewind controls an average of 49 times-confirming that people do understand and take advantage of TiVo's capabilities. In the special case of the Super Bowl, of course, evidence showed that people did watch (and re-watch) ads.

prime-time peril

When 40% of people can do this there will be no regular programs left on TV where we can reach more than 10% of the population with a single commercial. So what, then, will "prime time" be?

This brings us back to clutter. In 2002, the six broadcast TV networks devoted more than a quarter of their prime-time hours to advertising, public service announcements and program promotional messages. Prime-time clutter levels for the broadcast nets rose yet again in 2002 while cable levels fell a little. ABC stands out, having raised non-programming minutes per hour to a record 17.

If the average person is hit with one hour of commercials every day, as he is today (perhaps 75 to 100 individual messages), how many is he going to want to take notice of?

Regular annual "snapshots" by the American Association of Advertising Agencies over the last 10 years show prime-time clutter levels have increased 20%-higher than the increases in other dayparts. They also show prime time to be the least-cluttered daypart. In daytime, the Big Four broadcast networks scheduled 21 minutes of advertising and promotions every hour, according to the November 2001 Four A's study. Other non-prime dayparts averaged 17 to 18 minutes an hour.

Advertisers are between a rock and hard place. As ratings decline and demand for shows with higher ratings, in particular, remains strong, pressure is on the networks to raise the number of ad minutes. Competitive scheduling also spurs them to devote more time to cross-promoting other programs, adding to the clutter.

Even where viewers don't have PVRs and watch TV "live," other technologies, such as electronic program guides, are providing another destination during commercial breaks, adding to the pressure.

What can be done? If demand for advertising inventory remains unchanged, reducing the number of commercial minutes aired will have an inevitable upward effect on CPMs-which already are rising strongly in a depressed economy. This is unlikely to be popular amongst advertisers.

Few would disagree that "effectiveness" would improve in an environment of fewer competing messages. But most would reject the trade-off between effectiveness and efficiency in favor of the "hard" metric of CPMs. Maybe we need to re-examine the metrics we use. Let us start with commercial ratings.

Andrew Green is managing partner, director of communication insights, Omnicom Group's OMD, New York.

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