In network radio's heyday and in television's early days, a commercial usually lasted one minute. In 1971, though, the standard TV commercial became 30 seconds. Now, it's possible that the prime-time standard may be even shorter--15 seconds.
The prospect brings both good news and bad news to viewers who think there now are so many commercials each night that brains are in danger of being fried. (A recent tally showed 20 local and national ads aired during a one-hour CBS prime-time program.)
The good news, such as it is: Adoption of 15-second ads as the new network standard wouldn't necessarily mean more time for commercials and less time for the shows they sponsor each evening.
The bad news: Adoption of 15-second ads as the new basic sales unit could mean more ads filling the same time (the networks say they currently air 6 or 6 1/2 minutes per prime-time hour of "non-program material"--most of that material being commercials).
All this is under grave consideration at the networks and on Madison Avenue as the 15-second appeals to buy already have begun easing into prime-time network television.
Network executives don't think such ads will become the new industry standard. Still, CBS in August became the first network to accept individual 15-second ads, albeit only on its one-minute news breaks and its brief "American Portrait" segments.
ABC, although opposed to the spread of such commercials, began accepting them on Sept. 23--though also on a limited basis, only as part of its one-minute news, sports and business reports in prime time.
NBC hasn't joined the pack yet; it is taking a wait-and-see position. That also seems the prevailing mood on Madison Avenue, which by one estimate will spend $8.7 billion on network advertising this year.
But two major agencies, BBDO and J. Walter Thompson Co., believe that 15-second ads could become the rule, not the exception. And it could happen within five years, says Edith Gilson, Thompson's senior vice president for research.
She agrees that an increase in use of these shorter ads could increase TV's "clutter" problem, making viewers so numbed by commercials and promotions for other shows that they'd tune out--mentally, physically or both.
"To me, it really depends on how well advertisers understand the media and the new consumer," Gilson says. "If we give them (viewers) the kinds of commercials they can relate to, ones that are very visual and very impactful . . . then we're fine."
If not, she adds, "then you're right. They would not absorb that."
Advertising agency executives say the current rate for a 30-second network commercial in prime time ranges from $75,000 to as much as $270,000, depending on the program, its ratings, the target audience and circumstances of the sale.
What advertisers now are saying, Gilson says, is that "the media has become extremely costly. And the way we look at it for our clients is that 15 seconds offers them an alternative that they didn't have before. We aren't saying to our clients, 'Switch completely to 15s,' but rather, 'Use it to your advantage.' " In other words, they shouldn't think of the 15-second ad so much as a money-saver but as a more efficient use of money spent for advertising.
The way for more and shorter commercials has been paved by so-called "split-30s"--back-to-back 15-second ads for different products made by the same company. Alberto-Culver began the split-30 movement last year.
All three networks now air them, even though network officials say that split-30s currently account for only 4% to 5% of their prime-time advertising.
What the networks and advertisers now are studying is "the free-standing 15," which may sound like an obscure gymnastics category, but simply is a 15-second commercial, period.
That it may be the coming thing is noted in an internal memo--recently unearthed by Advertising Age magazine--circulated at New York's BBDO advertising agency.
The memo, by BBDO Senior Vice President Bill Croasdale, notes that while CBS insists that its limited acceptance of 15-second commercials does not portend a wider use of them, the agency believes that CBS' action is a door-opener.
And, the memo says, it "would seem to indicate that the 15-second commercial will ultimately be the basic unit of network sales."
"I hope not," says ABC-TV President George Newi. "I certainly don't want them to." He's against the 15-second movement, he says, because "it would double our inventory" of commercial time to sell. It might also make viewers armed with remote control devices more prone than they already are to "zap" out commercials, he adds.
If ABC ever joins the 15-second parade on a large scale, he says, it only will be "because of the market influence."
Robert C. Blackmore, senior vice president of sales at NBC, says his network takes the same position. He says that while NBC doesn't now accept free-standing 15s, their acceptance by CBS may lead to wider industry usage and "certainly is a start in that direction."