2005-01-20 / This Week's Attitude

Lost Viewers Have Networks Desperate For Ads

This Week

This Week’s AttitudeBy Neil S. Friedman

Watching television, whether it’s network or cable, these days is an exasperating ordeal because actual program duration is progressively shrinking while time allotted for intrusive interruptions is slowly on the rise.

With today’s remote control units making it easier than ever to channel surf or fast-forward with the touch of a button, it takes little effort to escape the inconvenience of television commercials, also known as “commercial avoidance.” But, regrettably, there are lots more commercials to avoid.

In a typical break between prime-time program segments viewers are bombarded with no less than half a dozen commercials, plus spots for future shows, late news teasers and whatnot.

ABC’s campy “Desperate Housewives” (Nicollette Sheridan, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross, Eva Longoria and Teri Hatcher)is one of the network’s shows that’s a hit with viewers, but somewhat short in length due to an excess of commercials.Moshe Braka©ABC, Inc.ABC’s campy “Desperate Housewives” (Nicollette Sheridan, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross, Eva Longoria and Teri Hatcher)is one of the network’s shows that’s a hit with viewers, but somewhat short in length due to an excess of commercials.Moshe Braka©ABC, Inc. Cable networks like USA, TNT and TBS, have traditionally been guilty of advertising excess, but the broadcast networks for years had traditionally established an informal 44-46 minutes an hour for a program.

Come to think of it, the CBS news magazine “Sixty Minutes” should be called “About 60 Minutes” since its customary three 12-minute segments, plus Andy Rooney, barely exceed the 40-minute mark. That’s almost 20 minutes of commercials, network promos and other insignificant details.

Since the current television season began in September, more interruptions have pecked away at precious program length. ABC, which in the last few months has gained in the ratings due mostly to a couple of popular new series — “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” — appears to be at the forefront of this unwelcome modification.

With those programs’ budgets exceeding typical limits for a one hour series, network bean counters probably figured the best way to cover the additional outlay was to increase the amount of ads during those time periods for those shows.

I recently noticed two additional commercial breaks for those one-hour programs. In addition, one recent episode of “NYPD Blue,” another of the network’s popular shows, which ends its decade-long run this spring, had two consecutive segments that were barely six and seven minutes each, bookended by 3-4 minutes of commercials, promos and other annoying interludes.

And don’t get me started about the lost minutes during Fox’s hit show, “24.” Since its launch three years ago, I’ve always wondered what goes on during the 4-5 minute commercial breaks of this action drama synchronized in real-time. That’s time enough for a bathroom break, snack and beverage replenishing and a little channel surfing, too. Are the characters on a coffee break during those intermissions?

It looks like the four major broadcast networks - ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox - which have lost millions of viewers to the wider, and sometimes more entertaining, array of cable options in the last decade, have surrendered to any notion they can dam the audience reduction, so they compensate with more ads.

And who isn’t bothered by the growing pop-up promos on cable and network TV? Growing, not in number, but in size! When they first began popping up, they were rather inconspicuous, but recently larger graphics and animation occupy more screen space for more time, often overlapping printed details or sports scores scrolling across the TV monitor. It’s Spam for television!

And while the excess of television ads has condensed your favorite television show, let’s not forget being bombarded by ads at the local movie house. When you show up 15 to 30 minutes early to get a preferred seat, you’re subject to ads for an assortment of products from cars to soft drinks. Used to be you went to the movies and didn’t mind sitting through coming attractions (actually ads for upcoming movies) before the feature began, but some marketing genius figured, “Hey, we got a captive audience sitting there, let’s sell ‘em something!”

What’s most exasperating about television and movie house ads is the inability to control exposure time. There are some commercials I don’t mind watching. That’s my choice. But when viewers are bombarded with five or six ads/promos in a short period, there’s an urge to ignore them, as opposed to newspaper, magazine or direct mail ads, where the consumer controls the duration spent examining an ad.

Advertising is a necessary annoyance sustained by a multibillion-dollar business that is a key factor in our consumer-driven economy and culture. But when desperate media managers try to recoup revenues due to lost viewers, less programming, in lieu of more commercials, just doesn't add up.

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