Load Limit


I agree. What Moonves didn’t note, however, was that the commercial load on the ad-supported programming that CBS, ABC and others have put on the Web is decidedly limited. You may not be able to skip through commercials while watching Lost and Desperate Housewives on ABC.com, for example, but the spots are far fewer and mercifully briefer than the broadcast norm on network primetime.

With the upfronts drawing to a close, what networks should take away from this is that limiting the commercial and promotional load in their broadcast programming not only makes viewers happy; it makes sound business sense.

Indeed, one of the factors driving the audience away from primetime is the frightening uptick in ad clutter on broadcast and cable networks alike for the past decade. Between all the commercials and promos that are continually crammed into shows, especially hits, almost a third of primetime is non-programming—and that doesn’t include the product-placement deals that have proliferated.

Savvy advertisers and network executives must realize it has all gone too far. Back in the early 1990s, when commercial minutes began to tick past 12, producers like thirtysomething co-creator Marshall Herskovitz warned that it would be hard to sustain any real dramatic or comic tension and that audiences would drift away if the clutter increased.

Well, the ads kept coming, forcing viewers to resort to myriad options to avoid them, from premium cable, digital video recorders and video-on-demand to online viewing and DVDs.

Meanwhile, everyone’s stuck at the negotiating table. Networks pledge to cut the clutter, but they’re unwilling to gamble that ratings would go up and allow them to demand more cash for fewer ads. For the most part, advertisers don’t want to pay the extra buck.

True, major advertisers have paid premiums to be single sponsors of interruption-free telecasts of season premieres and other special events. But while such deals have helped drive ratings and left the advertisers walking away happy, they are relatively rare. The norm still is to sell as many spots as possible, leaving hit shows like House and Grey’s Anatomy to be carved up into six acts.

Media agency OMD just completed a study that examined levels of audience “engagement” with TV and other media platforms, old and new. Among the conclusions was that viewers are more responsive to commercials if they air during their favorite shows. No doubt advertisers and networks will use the study to justify clutter in the big hits with rabid fan bases.

“It may be, the engagement level can be so high the audience will stick around because they don’t want to miss anything,” says OMD Research Director Sandy Eubanks, who headed the survey. “But we do hear more and more complaints from consumers about clutter,” Eubanks adds. “And that translates into more avoidance behavior.”

No kidding. Let’s hope networks and advertisers agree to at least a token reduction in clutter. A little really would go a long way.

CBS Corp. chief Leslie Moonves’ typically adroit salesmanship was on display last Wednesday at the PricewaterhouseCoopers annual media outlook conference. Asked about his company’s recent forays into online distribution, like putting the NCAA Basketball finals on the Web for free, Moonves said they demonstrated the advantages of an advertiser-supported model over a subscription-based one: “People would rather sit through commercials than pay 99¢ or $1.99.”

E-mail comments to bcrobins@reedbusiness.com