Clutter talk

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You can't do anything about the weather -- but talk about it. The same seems to apply to "clutter" on primetime network TV. Accordingly, it should surprise no one that yet another clutter record was set in 1999: On average last year, 15 minutes of every prime-time hour was given over to "non-program material" (paid ads, network programming promos, public service messages, etc.). It's time for advertisers to regroup.

Though new clutter reports elicit cries of dismay from the media buying community, little changes. Some "station breaks" now run for five minutes. Reports last year that Walt Disney Co. had ordered ABC to trim program time to create more ad inventory were labeled "suicidal" by at least one media buyer. Yet in new data from the Alliance, the informal pairing of media departments at sister agencies J. Walter Thompson USA and Ogilvy & Mather, ABC led the Big Four with the most primetime clutter per hour. So much for tough talk.

The dot-com stampede into TV last year made it easier for network executives to shrug off clutter concerns. With buyers lined up cash in hand, the networks are unlikely to view clutter complaints with much alarm. Nor is government likely to intervene. U.S. Justice Department antitrusters years ago struck down as anti-competitive National Association of Broadcasters' commercial-minutes-per-hour ceilings.

It's good that the Alliance and ad industry associations keep reporting as clutter record after record is set. But thus far they have little to show for their efforts. The forecast for the future is mostly clutter, and more clutter. And plenty of talk about it.

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