ABC again No. 1 on clutter list

Sep 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

In a stinging response to the continuing problem of clutter on TV, MindShare, the WWP Group media agency that closely monitors nonprogramming time on TV, has just issued a report saying that it is “alarmed by the continuing deterioration of the TV environment.”
The four broadcast networks averaged about 14:30 minutes of clutter per prime-time hour in the first quarter of 2002, according to the Clutter Watch report.
In the same period, clutter at some of the biggest cable networks was down.
Once again, ABC had the dubious distinction of being the most cluttered of the Big 4.
“Fully one out of every four minutes on ABC [in the quarter] was nonprogram material,” according to the report, which was written by Debbie Solomon, senior partner, group research director, MindShare.
An ABC spokeswoman responded that the network was being “penalized” for its commitment to PSAs, saying that ABC typically airs more PSAs than the other broadcast networks and that, at one time, it aired “as much as all the other [broadcast] networks combined.”
Clutter, according to MindShare’s definition, includes commercials, public service announcements and promos, which are the networks’ own commercials for themselves.
Not surprisingly, the report finds that the broadcast networks in many cases have “strategically allotted the highest number of non- program minutes to some of their highest-rated shows, popular series in which advertisers are already paying premiums.”
For example, “60 Minutes” might better be named “41 Minutes Plus,” as the popular CBS newsmagazine averaged 18:16 minutes of nonprogram material during the first quarter.
In addition to “60 Minutes,” other Nielsen favorites with groaning commercial and promo loads include NBC’s “ER” and “Will & Grace,” with 16:10 and 16:00 of nonprogram minutes per average hour, respectively, and CBS’s “Everybody Loves Raymond,” with 16:58.
In the quarter, ABC averaged 15:10 nonprogram minutes per prime-time hour (up from 14:50 in the same quarter last year), of which 10:01 was filled with commercials (up from 9:40 last year).
A high level of clutter at ABC is not a new phenomenon related to the network’s recent ratings and make-good problems, Ms. Solomon said. “ABC was more cluttered even when they had the best ratings … and they were more cluttered before Disney owned them, too.”
The prime-time environment on Fox, which added more than a minute of clutter, deteriorated the most of the four networks in the period, a distinction it earned for the first time in the history of Clutter Watch. Fox, which programs fewer prime-time hours than the Big 3, averaged 14:33 nonprogram minutes in the quarter (compared with 13:10 last year), of which 8:39 was commercials (up from 7:51).
By comparison, NBC had 14:39 nonprogram minutes (down 4 seconds from 14:43), of which 9:45 was commercials (up from 9:18); and CBS had 14:09 nonprogram minutes (down 1 second from 14:10), of which 9:31 was commercials (up from 9:24).
“We do not begrudge our national broadcast partners their right to make money,” Ms. Solomon wrote. “Nevertheless, we are alarmed by the continuing deterioration of the TV environment caused by the increasing number of distracting elements present in prime time. More restraint would be most welcome.”
Adding to the prime-time deterioration are relatively new forms of “screen clutter,” according to the report, including the “split screen,” in which a commercial or promo runs next to a show’s credit crawl; the “snipe,” in which a text message crawls across the bottom of the screen; and even “clutter within programs,” in which a network inserts its own logo or plugs one of its programs in one corner of the screen.
Last season even saw clutter go high tech in the form of the Time Machine, a digital device employed by local stations and others to eliminate duplicate frames and imperceptibly shorten programs and commercials (and thereby make time for even more commercials). Use of this device seems to have been curtailed since it was first exposed (Electronic Media, Nov. 5, 2001), Ms. Solomon said. “I haven’t heard complaints about it very recently,” she said.
Clutter at some of the biggest cable networks was down in the period, according to the study. ESPN had 11:11 nonprogram minutes (compared with 11:43), of which 8:32 was commercials (compared with 9:17); Lifetime had 12:35 nonprogram minutes (compared with 14:05), of which 9:59 was commercials (down from 11:26); TNT had 13:28 nonprogram minutes (down from 13:33), of which 9:23 was commercials (down from 9:29); and USA Network had 13:29 nonprogram minutes (down from 14:16), of which 9:58 was commercials (down from 11:35).
Of course, those cable network drops probably don’t represent anything more than the vagaries of the depressed marketplace in the first quarter, Ms. Solomon said. Nonetheless, “Cable is generally less cluttered than broadcast,” she said. “That’s something we’ve seen consistently over time.”
The most cluttered shows tend to change from month to month, Ms. Solomon said, but when MindShare issues its next Clutter Watch, it’s “probably a safe bet that ABC will retain its dubious title.”
The MindShare Clutter Watch report, which has been on ongoing series for the past five year, is based on monthly data compiled by CMR. For the past five years Clutter Watch reports have been tracking how many minutes of nonprogram material the networks cram into an average prime-time hour.