Mindshare’s annual Clutter Watch study -- released just in time for the upfront frenzy -- is a valuable barometer for how the TV business is evolving pods, promos and other brand messaging. Each year that passes, the study becomes more valuable, enabling us to better understand trends while the business seeks to come to terms with an audience that seems to be fragmenting not only by channel, but also by platform.
The issue of clutter is, of course, not new. Mindshare has been publishing this particular study since 1999, for example, and the problem has been debated for longer. Experiments with ad pod formats have been going on for a long time, often taking on the characteristics of a kind of cat-and-mouse relationship between broadcaster and viewer. The broadcaster (cat) is seemingly seeking to stalk or outsmart the ever-elusive viewers (mice), who continually adapt their behavior to avoid the barrage of messages coming at them.
Not everyone avoids ads. But enough do to make it an issue, as reflected by everything from pod frequency and length, to the running order within pods of ads versus program promos -- not to mention the overlay of promos on program credits.
Interestingly, the Mindshare study shows that most broadcast and cable networks are maintaining the same level of non-programmed airtime as last year. Maybe the view is that enough is enough, and that to push things further would backfire and hit ratings. On the other hand, there are suggestions that messaging in the form of product placements and branded entertainment is on the increase. Perhaps this is a case of enough being but a prelude to more (to borrow from my colleague Rodger Smith).
But this isn’t just about ad avoidance. Broadcasters are simply also looking to make more money by squeezing value out of every second of inventory they can identify and sell.
The problem here is that such an approach risks compromising the viewing experience and -- to use the language of the day -- undermining the medium’s ability to engage a viewer. A barrage of ads and promos that is perceived as simply too frequent will compromise the viewing experience, particularly when viewers are emotionally involved in their favorite programs.
It’s not that (most) viewers are anti-ad. Most of us have grown up with ads, regard them as part of the landscape and accept them as such. But there has to be a point when the sheer amount of clearly commercial messages (whether integrated within programming or not), the frequency of pods, the frequency of exposure to the same, and so on, will have an effect over and above that of the ads themselves. How something is presented is every bit as important as what is presented -- especially at a time when people are used to controlling their media experiences.
To my mind, one of the biggest issues is the frequency with which I may see the same ad in an evening’s viewing -- or more particularly, within the same program. This tactic may make sense if trying to reach compulsive ad avoiders (and who knows what proportion of any program’s audience this group is, really?), but for those who don’t actively avoid ads, this kind of mental pummeling over and over with the same message can’t be too “engaging.” At its worst -- and for those viewers sensitive to the issue -- watching TV can feel like a boxing match in reverse. While in boxing the fighters do 3-minute rounds and then have a short break, there are programs that carry so much commercial messaging that the viewers relax through the programming until the moment comes for them to endure a 3-minute messaging assault on the senses, before they mentally collapse into their corner/sofa to recover in time for the next round.
OK, I’m exaggerating the point, but you get the idea. I don’t know if we’ve yet reached the time when the way we present messages on TV comprises the messages themselves; maybe we won’t. Maybe the Mindshare study reveals that the time has come when broadcasters have concluded that enough is enough. Maybe not.
What do you think? Is clutter a big issue? Are we on a slippery slope, so in the future pretty much any amount of conventional messaging is not going to sit well with viewers, who will increasingly skip commercials or even abandon the broadcast schedule altogether in favor of downloads? Or will the status quo prevail?