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Just a little more breathing room

For the first time in 10 years, the level of non-program minutes in network prime-time TV shows declined last year, according to a new monitoring report detailed last week.

The study, by the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers, was one of the opening topics at the Four A's convention in New Orleans and covered the six major networks, selected syndicated shows and 19 cable networks.

Why the decline? The industry annual "TV clutter" report, as it's sometimes called, didn't draw any absolute conclusions. But the study suggested that the protracted presidential-election coverage was a key factor.

The coverage lasted five weeks past Election Day and included dozens of commercial-free special reports on the networks.

And the decline in prime time clutter was modest, a mere 1.6%, to an average 16 minutes and 17 seconds from the 16:43 for the comparable period monitored in 1999. Agency executives last week stressed that they believe clutter is still a big problem.

Allen Banks, executive vice president, Saatchi & Saatchi, said there continues to be a "ridiculous amount of clutter that exists in all media but is particularly annoying when listening to radio or watching television."

O. Burtch Drake, president of the Four A's, said, "The clutter issue remains a serious one that ad agencies plan to watch closely. Our feeling is that less clutter allows good advertising to get the exposure it deserves."

Clutter reduces the effectiveness of ads because viewers get irritated by the huge volume of ads and tend to tune them out, according to ad executives.

Among the Big Four networks, ABC, CBS and Fox all showed declines in prime time clutter last November. In ABC's case, it was the first drop since 1992. NBC posted the only gain, climbing 4% to 17:15 per hour.

That's a new prime time clutter record for November, the study said, surpassing 16:57 per hour attributed to ABC in November 1999.

The study monitors two weeks a year, one in May and one in November. In May 2000, each of the Big Four showed gains in total prime time clutter, with ABC climbing to 18:02 per hour, an all-time high for both periods measured by the study.

On the cable side, the study showed Fox Family Channel was the most cluttered network, with 18:05 minutes last November, while Nickelodeon was the least cluttered of the cable networks monitored, with just 13:44 minutes.

It's pretty clear that viewers will tune out and "zap" ads at every opportunity. Mark McLaughlin, a partner in Fuel North America, New York, a new-media advertising company, said studies show that users of personal video recorders, such as TiVo, fast-forward through up to 80% of the commercials in the shows they watch.

McLaughlin thinks TiVo's popularity is about to explode. "The genie is out of the bottle, and consumers love it," he said.

But it's the digital age in general that presents challenges for advertisers, said Richy Glassberg, chairman of Phase2Media, New York. "What if the viewer can download ER for a buck and skip the commercials?" he asked.

Surprisingly, about a third of TV clutter consists of messages that aren't ads, such as program promos and local news teasers and public-service announcements.

The biggest drop in actual commercial time came in network news programming, where advertising decreased a dramatic 26% to 11 minutes and 39 seconds per hour. That drop, the study concluded, was clearly due to election coverage and represented a record low for network news programming over the past decade.