Heavy Commercial Loads Are Killing Basic Cable

With heavy commercial loads making for lengthy breaks that seem to come every few minutes during their shows, most of the networks on basic cable would seem to be digging their own graves.

It's an opinion I have long held, and it has been addressed here in the TV Blog more than once.

My theory has long been that if you begin airing so many commercials that viewers form the impression you are offering them more commercial time than entertainment time, then they will eventually cease visiting your channel or channels in search of something to watch.

For me, when I assume the role of “typical viewer,” this phenomenon takes the form of endless searches in the evening with my remote control for TV shows -- whether in progress or not -- that I might want to stop for and spend some time with.

More often than not, though, even when I find something I might be interested in watching, it usually turns out that the show is only one or two minutes away from a commercial break, which disrupts and spoils the experience I have only just begun to enjoy.



Then the commercial break hangs in there for so long that I give up and go searching elsewhere, only to have much the same experience. It's no wonder so many people are getting their TV fixes elsewhere these days.

It’s a problem on all sorts of basic-cable networks and shows, but it’s possibly at its worst during theatrical movies.

Ever try and watch a movie on basic cable? Movies you remember running two hours or less suddenly balloon to more than three. Watching them amounts to an act of masochism.

For a long time, I thought I was the only one who was aware of this problem, particularly since it has persisted for so long. Or at the very least, I feel like I'm the only TV columnist writing about it (which is pretty typical).

But the other day, in a conversation with a cable executive, I learned I’m not the only one who has observed this phenomenon.

It's not fair for me to reveal the identity of this person, for reasons of journalistic ethics (yes, they do exist). But he or she runs a handful of basic cable channels that don’t happen to have the same commercial load problem found in many other places in ad-supported basic cable.

In my description of the situation, I used the phrase “digging their own graves.” This executive put it this way: “It drives me crazy, quite frankly, because the cable business is eating itself from the inside out.

“A lot of the ratings declines are a self-fulfilling prophecy,” this person said, “and are driven by the inability to be good stewards of brands and content.”

Of this person's own networks, this executive said: “We are very conscious of the environment we are creating because certainly the reality of the landscape is that viewers are less and less inclined to watch content with commercials, and they are more and more enabled to avoid commercials through Netflix or through Hulu or the DVR. So we are very sensitive to it.”

So why isn't everybody else? News flash: The competition for eyeballs is more intense today than it has ever been in the entire history of television (or whatever it's called now).

It would stand to reason that any legacy distribution platform -- such as basic cable, in this case -- would be interested in taking all the steps necessary to ensure that the audiences it has worked hard to accrue for lo these many years not be driven elsewhere.

One such step would be to reduce the number of commercials, the length of the commercial pods, and the frequency of them. What am I missing here?

Photo from “My 600-lb Life” courtesy of TLC.

14 comments about "Heavy Commercial Loads Are Killing Basic Cable".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, October 18, 2017 at 10:58 a.m.

    Of course, Adam, however, with time buyers willing to pay a cable channel only half what they pay a broadcast TV network for a commercial "exposure" per viewer, it is not surprising that ad clutter levels are high on basic cable, especially in the daytime hours. If a cable channel initiated the kind of commercial load reduction that would make a meaningful, not a symbolic, difference---like cutting back at least a third and, perhaps more, across the board,  not in a few low rated shows---it needs to be assured that advertisers, via their media buyers, would "reward" the channel with significantly higher CPMs. This is by no means a sure thing, I'm afraid. Also, there has been relatively less attrition in basic cable's ratings---some exceptions notwithstanding---due to Netflix, et al. The main losers in primetime have been the broadcast networks. So, while everyone agrees that fewer commercials would be a good thing and better for advertisers, it's not a given that severe reductions would pay out for an ad seller---which is why there is so much ad clutter not only on cable but increasingly in primetime on the broadcast networks.

  2. Kim S from Media, October 18, 2017 at 11:25 a.m.

    IMHO the only thing you are missing Adam is short term v long term thinking...cut back my ad load/revenue now to look 4 quarters down the line to create a viewing environment that maintains audience?? Not going to happen esp when so many of these nets are a part of huge conglomerates doing everything they can to maintain revenue status quo.
    And Ed one thing to remember majority of cable is bought by agencies in broad time/daypart rotations, for the most part=commodity eyeballs.
    It takes vision and a spine to change...what am I missing?

  3. Melissa Prince from INSP Television Network, October 18, 2017 at 11:52 a.m.

    So true, Ed.  On this week's installment of "This is Us" (NBC's blockbuster hit), there was a four-minute commercial break every 6 minutes.  It was shocking.  I could find neither flow nor grip in the story arc because of the constant breaks.  So it's not just cable nets.  

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 18, 2017 at 11:56 a.m.

    Canabalism. Who profits ?

  5. David Reich from Reich Communications, Inc., October 18, 2017 at 1:01 p.m.

    I know the ad and marketing communities don't want to hear this, but I tend to DVR most programs (other than news) so I can watch them -- even if only about 15 minutes later than live -- without the long commercial breaks.   Maybe at some point, nets and cable channels will insist on technology that prevents fast-forwarding through the ads, but for now, that's how I watch most TV these days.  And I know I'm not alone.

  6. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, October 18, 2017 at 1:39 p.m.

    David, I feel your pain as I also avoid long cable commercial breaks. But, interestingly, Nielsen finds that DVR delayed viewing is much more likely for your average broadcast network show than its commercially moire cluttered cable counterpart---so I guess that we are in the minority.

  7. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, October 18, 2017 at 2:03 p.m.

    "More" cluttered, not "moire" cluttered. Sigh!

  8. John Harpur from Yellow Submarine, October 18, 2017 at 4:07 p.m.

    As for live vs DVR’d viewing, I think that higher quality (what we used to call appointment) TV tends to be DVR’d as put forward in MediaPost just yesterday. (See link) I think cable just has more programming that falls in the “nothing else on” category and so not DVR’d.

    I think it’s for this same reason that the cable networks get away with the extra commercial load with viewers because the cable viewer may not be as attentive or care as much. We go to the remote. Many of us have our attention buried in our smartphones or tablets during breaks anyway.

    But another factor is that, in my opinion, Nielsen C-3 ratings do not accurately reflect the amount of channel switching or fast forwarded DVR viewing for buyers to take notice. But then, as Ed points, out the CPMs for cable are much lower than broadcast and so maybe it’s just a wash in the end.

  9. Dan Ciccone from STACKED Entertainment, October 18, 2017 at 6:42 p.m.

    This practice started more than a decade ago. I would also argue that there is not increased competition for eyeballs, but a complaisant ad buying community was more than happy to play the status quo with antiquated Nielsen rating because TV used to be the easiest sell to clients. 

    The slow spiral has evolved (or devolved) into a quick dive. Welcome to the new world order where content is king and the industry finally gets back to its roots with a primary sponsor and product integration driving revenue vs. a barrage of interruptive commercials ruining the lean back experience of being entertained. 

  10. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, October 18, 2017 at 8:58 p.m.

    Dan, the agencies don't sell their clients on TV their clients not only want to be on TV but they demand it. As regards commercial clutter on TV, audiences by and large get used to it---and even though some--- like you and myself ---don't like the degree of commercialization we encounter, your typical TV addict---20% of the population who represent over half of the audience for most shows--- not only  hungrily sops up program content that we might find silly or just plain stupid but many of them also watch the ads and often regard them as funny, enjoyable and as presenting useful info. For example daytime TV has always had at least twice the number of commercials per hour as primetime and for years advertisers who really hated daytime TV's "crap fare" kept asking the agencies whether it was effective, whether  women viewers paid any attention to all those commercials, etc. hoping to find an excuse to drop daytime. Yet everytime we and others did an ad recall study, including message content playback, comparing the same commercials in prime and day the results were about the same and, in several cases, daytime "won". If you check Nielsen's ongoing commercial recall studies today you will find that the average cable recall score is only about 10-15% below the norm for broadcast TV---if someone from Nielsen cares to elaborate on this please chime in----despite all of those comercials on cable. In fact, in many cases broadcast TV has almost as many commercials so the disparity , overall, is not nearly as great as some think.

  11. Terry Kollman from Charter Marketing Group, October 21, 2017 at 4:11 p.m.

    Please address the commercial format problem in the broadcast network evening news.
    ABC, NBC and CBS time their breaks at the same time with 2.5 to 3 minute pharma ads.
    Then after 15 minutes, they run lifestyle content for 1 minute then back to another commercial pod.  It's very frustrating for the viewer.

  12. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, October 22, 2017 at 4:44 p.m.

    Terry, the same thing often happens with the cable news channels. I believe that it is a deliberate strategy---probably mutually agreed to----to discourage news viewers from switching back and forth from news channel to news channel.

  13. Nicholas Fiekowsky from (personal opinion), October 22, 2017 at 8:12 p.m.

    Better program/ad ratio would retain and attract viewers. My wife mostly uses Netflix. I use our DVR to skip ads, getting back nearly 20 minutes of each viewing hour. 

    This may also attract higher-value demographics. 

    Wouldn’t revenue increase with higher M in CPM, and potentially higher C?

    Seems likely basic cable and broadcast radio audience could end up as those without the money, expertise or freedom to select higher quality options - OTT, DVR... Doesn’t sound like a valuable demographic. 

  14. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, October 23, 2017 at 7:06 a.m.

    It is most unlikely that dramatically lowering ad loads on cable or other forms of TV content would greatly increase viewing---if at all---nor is there strong evidence of any kind that buyers would pay much higher CPMs for shows with many fewer commercials---except in a few isolated cases. People who use Netflix give many reasons for this, among them the lack of commercials, however, the same people are rather frequent cable viewers---more so than an average adult---yet cable has so many ads. How can this be? Methinks that the primary reason for using Netflix goes to the availability of content exactly when the user wants is and the quality of said content and not so much whether there are ads---though this is a factor.

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