Ad Clutter Keeps Climbing

If you're wondering why channel surfing is a way of life for TV watchers today and TiVo is such a big issue in the industry, consider this: Almost one full hour out of the three hours of prime time TV on the broadcast networks is composed of commercials, on-air program promos and public-service announcements.

That's according to a new study of commercial "clutter" on the networks, which reveals that viewers are now exposed to an average 52 minutes of non-program content a night on each of the four major broadcast networks. That's about 17 minutes worth of clutter time per network per hour.

And, according to the study by Los Angeles-based media research firm PhaseOne Communications, there is more of it—clutter, that is—than ever. The firm reports 8% growth in broadcast prime time clutter compared with 2000. Over the past decade, clutter has grown an astounding 36% in network prime time, PhaseOne reports.

"Breaking through the clutter and getting a television ad noticed today is harder than ever," says Terry Villines, director of analysis for PhaseOne. "Advertisers need to be increasingly creative to deliver the same results that television advertising has offered in the past."

The fact of the matter is, though, clutter is a "doubled edged sword," as Susan Nathan, a senior vice president at Universal McCann, puts it. "It's a reflection of demand by advertisers to be on the air in the marketplace, so, in a way, it's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy."

The most effective solution to clutter, observers say, is for advertisers to buy fewer spots. But given the continuing strong demand for TV time, such a move would defeat the purpose for buyers and sellers alike.

The alternative is to come up with better ways to showcase products and advertisers. "I think everybody is kind of knocking themselves over trying to do that," says Nathan.

Product placement, cross-platform marketing, and sponsored programming are some of the techniques advertisers are exploring as part of the effort to stand out from the pack. Universal McCann is working on its own clutter study, analyzing multiple dayparts for both broadcast and cable nets in the fourth quarter. The study is due out next month.

The average commercial break in prime time is now just over three minutes long, up 41% from five years ago, according to the PhaseOne study, which was done in-house and monitored each night of network prime time programming during the third quarter. The company issued some of its findings last week but also plans to issue a full report next month.

Among the four networks, ABC showed the most prime time clutter in the PhaseOne study, with an average 54.6 minutes of commercial, PSA and promo time per night. That's up 8% from the network's clutter tally in 2000. CBS had the least amount of non-program time in the daypart: an average 50.8 minutes, up 7%. NBC posted 52.8 minutes of clutter nightly, up 2%. Fox averaged 51.6 minutes per night and showed the biggest percentage increase over 2000: 16%.

The results of the PhaseOne study show significantly more prime time network clutter than was revealed in recent studies by Court TV and OMD.

Court TV found about 13 minutes of clutter per hour (39 minutes per night) for the Big Four for the 2002-03 broadcast year.

The OMD study showed just over 15 minutes of clutter per hour (45 minutes per night) for the 2002-03 prime time season. Researchers say methodological differences probably account for the differing results, although, directionally, the studies show the same trend: Broadcast clutter continues to rise.

The PhaseOne study also showed about 6% more clutter than was revealed in prime time by a study jointly sponsored by the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers for 2001.

The Court TV study was based on Nielsen Monitor-Plus data and took a representative week from each of the past four quarters, measuring prime time clutter for 38 cable networks and the Big Four broadcast nets.

American Movie Classics showed the least clutter among the cable nets, averaging just less than 10 minutes per hour; until a couple of years ago, though, it was commercial-free. Court TV was in the top quarter of networks showing less clutter, averaging just under 14 minutes per hour in prime time.

Among the most cluttered cable networks were MTV (just under 17 minutes per hour) and Food Network (just over 16). The TV Guide Channel was the most cluttered, with more than 19 minutes per hour.

Court TV Senior Vice President, Sales Strategy, Debbie Reichig says clutter tends to diminish the effectiveness of TV as an advertising environment: "There is a correlation between clutter and switching channels." Indeed, studies show the more clutter the viewer is exposed to, the more channel surfing he or she engages in, Reichig says.