Editorial: TV choking on its own clutter

Mar 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

With the economy apparently back on the upswing, it may be a good time for broadcasters and advertisers to put their heads together to try to inject some creative juice into what has degenerated into a dysfunctional commercial partnership.
A new study by MindShare, “Clutter Watch 2001,” confirmed what most TV viewers already knew: TV clutter, including commercials, promos and PSAs, is at an all-time high. Clutter on some of the Big 3 networks’ most popular prime-time shows is approaching one-third of the total program length, with ABC’s “Drew Carey Show” and NBC’s “Weakest Link” among the worst offenders. ABC takes the overall prize for most cluttered network in prime time.
The report, the most comprehensive of its kind, concludes: “We are alarmed about the continuing deterioration of the TV environment caused by increasing the number of distracting elements in prime time. More restraint would be most welcome.”
Electronic Media wholeheartedly agrees, although we probably would have said it less politely. The bottom line is that broadcast networks are killing the golden goose. They’re alienating viewers, who have been fleeing in droves to cable-including commercial-free premium channels-and who have begun to embrace technology such as TiVo that enables them to avoid the head-throbbing repetitiveness of those agonizingly long, loud, annoying commercial breaks. Not to mention that they’ve become intimately acquainted with the fast-forward button on their VCRs.
Part of the problem can be attributed to the recent ad recession, which has hit the networks pretty hard. As ad prices have fallen, the nets have helped themselves to more of their own airtime to promote their programming. But with clutter at record levels, self-promotion defeats its own purpose. When the only thing a network has to promote is programming so riddled with junk that it’s all but unwatchable, it’s time to re-examine the TV advertising model.
One venerable model that deserves a fresh look is fully sponsored programming, an arrangement that thrived in television’s early days with such shows as “Hallmark Hall of Fame” and “Kraft Mystery Theatre.” Those shows established a tradition of quality programming with emphasis on the programming-not on the commercials. It’s an arrangement that reflects well on the sponsor, and one that would be especially welcome in the current television environment.
That’s just one example of the kind of innovative approach to advertising that’s overdue at the broadcast networks. The industry has every right to make money, but the networks are choking on their own greed. With their current advertising approach, everyone loses-especially the viewer. Network decision makers would be wise to cut back on the immediate gratification and take a look at the bigger picture.