Dear Cable TV Networks, Please Don't Add More Commercials

A report out this week indicated that TV networks experiencing ratings declines this summer are eyeing the addition of even more commercials to try and make up for revenue shortfalls. 

As I understand it, the formula works like this: Ratings declines lead to rate declines. The lower rates mean that a network has to then sell more spots (and create more availabilities for them) if it seeks to meet its revenue projections. Do I have this right?

For viewers -- those millions who still watch “regular” TV -- it means a greater disruption of a viewing experience that would seem to be already disrupted to the outer limit of what’s acceptable.

In fact, for many, the commercial loads on TV -- particularly on basic cable -- are already unacceptable, which might be why some viewing levels are cratering. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: Declining audience levels lead to more commercials, which leads to even more ratings declines.



Let me try and explain what I’m getting at here. First of all, the impetus for this blog post was a story in the New York Post on Sunday with the headline, “Expect more commercials thanks to ratings plunge.” The word “cable” didn’t appear in the headline because the story sought to encompass all commercial-supported TV -- broadcast and cable. However, when it came time to mention specific networks experiencing ratings shortfalls, they were all cable networks: MSNBC, TNT, TBS, Nickelodeon, MTV and A&E’s networks.

Then on Tuesday came a story in The Wall Street Journal that was headlined “TV Watchers Abandon Cable Shows.” This story was about ratings declines that are hitting cable TV networks specifically this summer, including shows such as “Rizzoli & Isles” on TNT and “The Strain” on FX (pictured above).

As a result, I am revisiting a topic that I have raised in various contexts previously, which is the almost unbelievable length of commercial breaks nowadays on cable TV. It is not exactly a new phenomenon either. I can remember writing about it a few years ago, during the heyday of “Jersey Shore” on MTV, when I watched the show and discovered that nearly half of this show’s half-hour running time was taken up by commercials. Seriously, I remember calculating the commercial time and coming up with 14 or 15 minutes worth.

Cable’s ridiculously long commercial breaks make themselves known in other ways too. When grazing with your remote on cable -- something millions still do every single day and night -- it is commonplace to come upon commercial pods more frequently than program content.

It happens all the time: You’re watching a show on cable and a commercial break arrives. From long experience, you know instinctively that this break will likely be anywhere from 4 to 6 minutes in length, if not longer.

These time frames seem interminable so you go in search of something else to watch. Sometimes you find something else that interests you, but more often than not, that show might be minutes, if not seconds, away from its own long commercial break. And generally speaking, when you go grazing during these long commercial breaks, you don’t find programs at all – just more commercial breaks.

Once upon a time, in the now ancient three-network era, efforts were made to restrict commercial loads during shows so that viewers would remain tuned in during the commercials, continue watching a show, and then sit through the next few commercials as well.

I certainly realize that in today’s multichannel environment, networks don’t enjoy the luxuries the Big Three once took for granted so long ago. But in today’s environment, viewers still want to feel as if they’re watching a TV show, and not something that you might better describe as a few minutes of program content serving as filler between commercial breaks, rather than the other way around.

And by the way, advertisers whose messages appear in the middle of long breaks are not well-served by commercial clutter either.

My advice, admittedly from the comfort of my armchair at home, is this: TV networks should always strive to create an on-air environment that is attractive to both viewers and advertisers. Jamming even more commercials onto the air is like stacking up billboards on a highway. Eventually, no one can read them all and the messages are lost.

Where commercial-supported TV is concerned: Viewers will be lost. And since they have many other viewing options these days, many of them won’t be back.

8 comments about "Dear Cable TV Networks, Please Don't Add More Commercials".
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  1. Rick Thomas from MediaRich Marketing, August 19, 2015 at 1:54 p.m.

    It's not unusual for broadcasters to increase commercial inventory when viewership declines.  It was standard practice especially for those of us in the radio sales business.  But most people use DVR's unless it's a live broadcast as in a sports event.  Who has time to sit and watch TV noting the massive amount of content available.

    With a DVR who cares about commercial content.  The best ad placements therefore are the first commercial in to a break and the last one back in to whatever show you are watching. 

    Most consumers just speed past the commercials.

    In addition TNT and USA have done some smart Product Integration efforts which quite frankly need to increase.  If cable networks were open to more Product Integration planning they could surely benefit from a revenue standpoint.

    Get creative.  Adding more commercials is not the answer. 

  2. Patty Ardis from Ardis Media, LLC, August 19, 2015 at 2:22 p.m.

    Speaking of creative, we must demand better creative from our advertisers. Consumers respond to good creative and even enjoy commercials as long as they are funny and/or clever or compelling in some way. But more commericals will not solve anything. Product integration is one avenue but also buying out the program and broadcasting portions of it or all of it, commerical free save the opening and closing spots.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 19, 2015 at 4:32 p.m.


  4. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, August 19, 2015 at 4:59 p.m.

    While adding to commercial clutter cant be  good thing, it should be remembered that DVR zapping is mainly a broadcast network problem; corresponding levels for cable prime as well as other dayparts are much lower. So the risk of offending viewers with a few more ads per hour may not be as great as is expected.Cable viewers are probably conditioned to more clutter.

    On the other hand, there is some evidence that commercial recall scores are lower for an average cable commercial than for its broadcast counterpart, so cable advertisers are paying a penalty for being in a heavily cluttered environment. Balanced against this are cable's very low CPMs. Say ad recall is 10-15% lower for cable ads---- that is clearly offset by CPMs that are 45-50% lower.

  5. Patty Ardis from Ardis Media, LLC, August 20, 2015 at 4:04 p.m.

    Agreed but beyond the CPM there is also the risk of just turning off the cable viewer, I mean at some point even if cable viewers are used to clutter there will come a point where the viewer might just feel that enough is enough. We as a community should demand better standards so as to protect the environment as we know it.

  6. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, August 20, 2015 at 5:41 p.m.

    Now that we're seeing 3-4 minute pods of ads within streaming TV, this title should read "Dear Streaming TV and CAble..."

  7. Alex sandro from charter spectrum, June 8, 2018 at 9:37 a.m.

    No one likes to watch their favorite TV shows or movies along with all the disruption of ads coming in it. And with passage of time the ads rate is keep on increasing. <a href="">Spectrum Corpus Christi</a> gives you ads free entertainment with its premium channels at an affordable price.

  8. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, June 8, 2018 at 10:01 a.m.

    From the very beginning some types of TV had far more commercialization than others. For example, daytime TV hit its viewers with twice as many ad messages as prime but in those days, the typical commercial was a "60" and it soon became clear that the primary problem was not so much how much time was devoted to ads but how many ads were in a typical break. Daytime viewers--almost all of whom were also primetime viewers--- soon acclimated to the varying, but tolerable doses of ads in each time slot and ratings were high in both as well as commercial recall scores.

    Fast forward to today and you have a tremendous degree of clutterization in alll time periods;prime is much more heavily cluttered than before, hence the once huge disparity between prime ( lesss ) and daytims/fringe ( more ) has shrunk greatly. Now, there is lots of in-break clutter, including PSAs and promos in all dayparts---with a few exceptions, of course. The primary culprit in this fiasco is the advertisers who in successive short -sighted and CPM focused moves forced the networks to accept "30s" at half the price of "60s" in the late 1960s and repeated the same mistake with "15s" in 25 years later. In both cases nobody seemed to care that the end result would be many more messages per break.

    Is it true that higher commercial clutter rates mean lower ratings? That may be true in certain cases where the dosage has become oppressive---like the daytime loads on the news channels. But, overall, I think that other factors----like better program content from alternative sources, the ability to select content on one's own time table, etc. also are major factors and probably outweigh resentment to ad clutter in most cases.

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