The study, released Monday by Los Angeles-based consultancy PhaseOne Communications, revealed TV viewers are subject to a whopping 52 minutes of promotional clutter during a typical three-hour block of prime time programming on the four major networks. That figure is up eight percent from 2000 and 36 percent from 1991, when PhaseOne conducted its first Advertising Environment Study. The average length of commercial breaks has also grown, rising to 3.05 minutes - a 41 percent jump from 1998.
As such, the report fuels a fire many on Madison Avenue have been tracking, but so far have been unable to put out.
"We want the networks to have revenue and make sure there's commercial inventory available, but it's a delicate balance between loading up and being fair to viewers and advertisers," says MindShare Senior Partner David Marans, whose company has done some of the most extensive and well-regarded research about prime time ad clutter.
The PhaseOne report concluded that if a viewer were to watch three consecutive hours on any of the networks during prime time, he or she would be exposed to a minimum of 130 commercials, programming promos, or public service announcements. ABC "led" its network peers in both average number of spots (152) and promotion time (54.6 minutes); Fox boasted the smallest number of spots (130), CBS devoted the smallest amount of time to promotion (50.8 minutes), and NBC had the longest average commercial break (3.6 minutes).
It's not difficult to guess what these numbers mean. Let's assume that viewers aren't flipping between channels or refilling the chip bowl during commercial breaks (a leap of faith in itself). Sooner or later, if the amount of promotional content continues to increase at its current pace, they're going to stop paying attention entirely. Plus, with the number of ads surging, the odds of any one spot making an impression on viewers decreases even further. "It's rare to get a series of research studies from different sources that come to same conclusion, but virtually every independent analysis has demonstrated that the more commercial clutter that exists, the more negative impact on viewer recall," Marans notes.
One question left unanswered by the study is how ad messages inserted into prime time shows, whether via product placement or other means, are affecting the clutter ratios. Marans, however, says he doubts whether product placements annoy viewers as much as other promotional content. "We had an absurdly non-branded world on television for years," he explains. "It was ridiculous for people on scripted shows to hold up a box of Corn Flakes with no name on it. All the research that's been done shows that the great majority of people don't care one way or another, as long as it's handled with restraint."
What Marans finds more intrusive, and thus more likely to engender viewer resentment, are promotional messages transposed on the screen during prime time programs. "You know, seeing the [NBC] peacock or the [CBS] eye while you're watching something else, or when activity scrolls across the bottom of the screen," he says. "We're seeing an invasion of the program itself while it's airing. You wonder if the networks are as concerned as the rest of us about diminishing the effectiveness of this great medium."