Missing in Action:The 2002 Clutter Report

Apr 28, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Every year about this time the trade press is full of articles from frustrated media buyers and advertisers complaining about the increased clutter reported in the AAAA/ANA Television Commercial Monitoring Report. This remarkably complete and disciplined report has been produced for more than 15 years in essentially the same format, becoming part of the infrastructure of the industry and allowing us to keep tabs on this important characteristic of the medium.

But not this year. My purpose is not to get into the negotiations that preceded the breakdown, but speaking as a planner, to express concern that we have lost our restraining influence on still greater clutter, potentially diminishing the effectiveness of television advertising.

To refresh our memory, the last report released a year ago covering 2001 revealed more than 16 minutes of nonprogram material per hour of prime time and almost 21 minutes/hour in daytime, a key daypart for many advertisers. Compared with 10 years ago, this represents a double-digit increase in every daypart except network news. The greatest increase came in prime time, the most expensive daypart.

It is interesting to note that the number of units in most dayparts has also increased, although not as much as the number of minutes. In our opinion, the perception of clutter is influenced as much by the number of discrete elements and interruptions as by their duration.

The average worker in the United States earns $16.82 per hour (Department of Education, FY 2001). So, with 18 minutes (30 percent) of each television hour devoted to nonprogram material, viewers are essentially paying $5.05 for the desired content. Taking this one step further, according to Nielsen Media Research (February 2003) the average adult spends 36 hours/week in front of the set, and so gives broadcasters $182/week worth of their time for the supposedly “free” television programs.

Viewers pay less attention now than they did 10 years ago.

This is having an effect on the way people watch TV. An analysis of MRI data shows viewers are paying less attention to programs now than they did 10 years ago. MRI asks people who watched a program “yesterday” how much attention they were paying: full, most or some. For each program, we pulled the number of total viewers and those who claimed to be paying full attention. Responses were then summarized by daypart. Cable television was not included because the question was not asked of cable viewers.

The analysis shows that attentiveness is down in every daypart, with the greatest decreases appearing in early morning and late fringe. Daytime is least affected.

It would be unfair to attribute the entire decline to the growth in commercial minutes. For instance, MRI tells us home-computer ownership has grown to 67 percent from 20 percent in 1992. The common practice of browsing the Internet at the same time as the TV set is on would naturally lead respondents to say they are paying less than full attention. However, the heavy clutter and lengthy periods of nonprogram material encourages this multitasking.


Although television may be less effective today than it was 10 years ago, it remains the premier medium for creating mass brand awareness for most consumer-targeted media plans. But a combination of lifestyle changes, technological pressure from the personal video recorder and now the potential for still greater (unmonitored) commercialization threatens to further reduce the value of television as an advertising medium. We have some control over the last element. Planners should do whatever is necessary to ensure the Commercial Monitoring Report is reinstated next year. In the meantime, they must develop television plans that are accurately targeted and account for the new realities of the medium.

Roger Baron is senior VP, media research director, FCB/ Chicago.