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Is anybody paying attention?

The results of a recall study commissioned by the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau suggest that people forget commercials with equal efficiency on both broadcast and cable networks. Only about 15% of the people contacted who had just watched a commercial break could remember what was in it.

The CAB spent several hundred thousand dollars on the survey, conducted by Nielsen Media Research, to refute a long-standing notion that people are more likely to sit through commercials on broadcast networks and surf through them on cable. What it demonstrated was that, while a majority of viewers hang around for the break, most of them zone out during commercials. Of more than 10,000 people watching TV when contacted for the study, roughly 66% stayed during the commercial breaks on both broadcast and cable networks, but only about 15% of those people could recall what they saw.

Nielsen Vice President of Custom Research Sales and Marketing Paul Lindstrom downplays the significance of the meager recall number. People often remember the product advertised even when they forget the commercial itself, he says.

The point of the study, at least from the CAB perspective, is to convince the ad-buying community that cable spots are just as effective as those on broadcast. CAB President and CEO Joe Ostrow figures the study will add weight to his argument that cable networks deserve the same advertising rates as broadcast networks. He contends that cable gets short shrift to the tune of about $2 billion in prime time advertising revenue.

"We're making a $2 billion bet," he says. "We think cable should not only get parity but a premium for targeting."

Ad buyers agree that cable's ability to target a specific demographic is one of the keys of a buy. There's even evidence that people pay more attention to commercials on cable because the cable networks are more topically focused, says Tim Spengler, a buyer with Western Media in Los Angeles.

Yet audience size still dominates when rate negotiations are concerned.

"You must remember, there's a dramatic difference in the numbers of people you reach," says Bob Igiel, veteran media buyer with MediaEdge. "When you start getting, on a regular basis, the audience that a broadcast network gets, that's when you deserve to get parity."

The study also looked at how recall was affected by pod position, or where a commercial falls during a break, and how many commercials are stuffed into a break, also known as clutter. Recall was nearly obliterated when more than seven ads were squeezed into a break, a wake-up call for networks jamming more and more spots into their air-time.

Recall for the first and second pod positions was highest, a finding that will have little impact on ad buys since position rotation is part of most deals. That may change with the advent of convergence appliances, on which people can click into an alternative cyberworld during one commercial and miss the next one, Igiel observes.

One factor affecting recall not addressed by the study is passion. People who care about what they're watching tend to pay attention even during the breaks, says Peter Chrisanthopolis, a buyer with MindShare. "According to the research we've done over the years, the more involved the person is with the program, the greater the recall for the commercial."