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Prime-Time TV 'Clutter' at All-Time High


Advertising and other interruptions gobbled up more of Americans' favorite prime-time television shows last year, according to a study to be released today by two advertising industry groups.

The amount of commercials, network promotions and public service announcements aired on prime-time network TV increased by 25 seconds to an all-time high of 15:44 minutes per hour in 1998, according to the American Assn. of Advertising Agencies and the Assn. of National Advertisers.

Media buyers claim this increasing "clutter," or non-programming content, is alienating viewers and making their clients' commercials less memorable.

"Ads are less effective than they were because there are too many messages launched at consumers' brains every second," said Tim Spengler, senior vice president of Los Angeles-based Western Initiative Media Worldwide.

Television executives counter that they have to promote their other shows and find a way to cover rising production costs.

In addition, they say, with cable channels grabbing more of network television's market share, they have to sell more time just to give advertisers the same punch they used to get.

"There's a strong demand for network television time," said David Poltrack, executive vice president of planning and research for CBS. "If you have a valuable commodity like we do, obviously you want to sell as much of it as you can."

In other words, if ad agencies weren't buying it, they wouldn't be selling it.

Media firms say they don't plan to back off on the amount of time they're buying. However, both ad and television executives agree that at some point too many interruptions can make even the most loyal viewers lose interest. Once ratings start to fall, advertising becomes less effective and ad prices less expensive.

The AAAA/ANA survey tracked programming over two weeks last year, one in May and the other in November.

Of the three major networks, ABC had the most non-programming time in its prime-time lineup, an average of 16:27 minutes per hour last November. Of that, 10:19 minutes were commercials. The most heavily advertised shows during that period were ABC's "Sports Night" and "Boy Meets World."

NBC ran a close second in non-programming time, with 16:05 minutes of clutter per hour. CBS averaged 14:45 minutes per hour.

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