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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

They Say We're Getting More Like Europe

Yeah, I know, every political pundit talks about us becoming more like the UK or the “continent”, good or bad.  But I’m talking about TV.

Some years ago, I was on a panel in Europe about barter television.  The goal was to help European programmers better understand barter program distribution and to realize that just because there is an advertiser attached to a program, it isn’t an indication that that advertiser’s next step is to take over rewriting the network’s newscasts.

One of the big issues that surfaced in Europe was the fact that most commercials were broadcast in long pods during the one commercial break in a half-hour.  That’s two breaks per hour.  That didn’t work so well for barter.  If an advertiser supplied a show for a 50-50 split of the ad time, that would mean running 3 or 4 :30’s in the same singular pod.  You reach and frequency folks might have fun with that but when you work through it, you’ll find it’s not too efficient. 

We wanted to spread out the spots throughout the programming.  I explained how it worked in the US and how barter allowed stations with inventory/avails to take advantage of good programming at “no” cost.

The response was nearly in unison. They had picked up on my word “no” but they said it with an exclamation point after it. Well, SuperChannel (yes, it was that long ago) said yes and we did do some business with what was BskyB but, “no” seemed to be the word of the day, I think they recorded it on their little Norelcos and just played it back when they saw us open our mouths.

In America, we didn’t understand the concept of 4 minute pods.  “Why the h--- would I want to be the 7th commercial in a group of 8 in a long pod,” was the response of an advertiser.  And rightfully so.  In the era before DVR’s, you stood a good chance of getting lost.  Nielsen numbers showed the falloff in viewers during a 2 minute break.  Advertisers shuddered at what a 4 minute break would bring.

OK.  Fade to black.  Fade up on a 2012 scene – maybe a network sales office or one of the few remaining barter syndicators.  Folks are sitting around a table trying to solve the conundrum of adding yet another :30 while keeping viewers tuned in.

Let me digress a second to say that “back then” when the company I was with approached a network with advertiser supplied programming and wanted to insert an extra :15 or :30 beyond the network standard – even though it was the advertiser’s program – all the nets said no (apparently they had Norelcos, too).

OK, McFly, back to today.  Now I am regularly treated with 3 minute breaks.  I see some that are 4 minutes long and even some shows formatted for 5 minutes.  (Sorry stations and networks, but DVR’s not only let folks zip and zap, they let people time breaks with ease.)  I’ve seen longer, but as far as formatted breaks, five minutes, plus one or two station promos, is about where we are.

Now one of the arguments the Europeans used was that commercials interrupt the continuity of the program.  Well, duh squared!  Over here, we were used to it.  And we could keep up. “We’re Americans.  We’re ten and 1!” to paraphrase a film from the past.  I don’t know for sure but maybe those breaks made us smarter or improved our memory compared to Europeans.  I know our economy and GDP were better for most of the time that we had those separate breaks.  Causal relationship?  Could be.

So the Europeans didn’t want to interrupt the story.  Americans rolled with it and culturally, we learned to keep the plot in our collective head.  That was after two, three, or, at most, four thirties.  Now we’re at five minutes.

Anyone remember the story about the two seniors watching TV.  The husband gets up and says, “I’m going for ice cream.” 

The wife responds, “Bring me some.  With chocolate sauce.”

He starts to leave the room and she says, “Write it down.  You’ll forget.”

He replies, “No I won’t.  I’m fine.”

She says, “Well, I want whipped cream on top, too.”


“No, write it down,” she admonishes.  “You’ll forget.”

He marches off and about 5 minutes later (the end of the commercial break?) he comes back and hands her a plate of scrambled eggs.  And she shoves it back at him, responding, “You forgot my damned toast.”

Well, with 5 minute breaks, it’s a lot like that.  It’s getting harder to keep the plot in your mind.  Some networks realize it – they’re running recaps after a long break in a drama, jumping back three or four scenes to get the viewer back into the show.  In other cases, you hope there’s someone else around to answer the, “Wait – is she his daughter?  Was she driving the black SUV?” questions.

Here’s another aspect of the issue:  “Back when” there was blasphemy committed when someone suggested :15’s.  Part of this was brought about when a particular advertiser sought to run :45’s and the networks didn’t know what to do and so demanded that 2 :45’s be piggybacked for 1:30 to keep network traffic folks out of the rest home.  Then came the :45/:15 piggyback so that minutes could be bought.  Then came the standalone :15’s. 
With them came a limit of the number of :15’s per pod.  After all, 8 in a two-minute break was just too much to take. 

Ah, but, apparently we’ve adapted.  Today, with a 5 minute break, :15’s are usually limited but we may see six or eight scattered about in that four or five minutes.  It’s funny – zipping through them, setups fly past to the point where the screen strobes like a disco on Donna Summers night.

Now, about that limiting thing.  Advertisers and networks both are sensitive to the clutter.  The advertisers may tolerate it because it keeps cost down (Remember, this is one of the few businesses where, when viewership goes down, rates go up because of supply and demand) and networks want to at least appear to be controlling clutter to somehow mitigate the tuneouts and zippers. 

Together – or separately – the advertisers and networks/stations have figured out that they can reduce clutter by airing not-so-short form commercials.  Some are the two-minute infomercials.  Others are even longer, produced as, can I call them “spots with stories?”  They can burn off two, three, even four minutes.  It solves the clutter but, at the same time, it introduces an entirely new storyline that takes the place of that drama you were watching.  Makes that recap a good thing because some folks' memory can’t go back four minutes.  Probably the aspartame.

But no matter how you slice it, we’ve gone European on steroids.  Not only do we have a five-minute break in a program, we have more than one.  And sometimes, we’re greeted with a three- or four-minute break, a sweeper, breakbumper or breakfiller with show title and maybe theme music (or the closed captioning disclaimer) and right into three or four minutes of local spots.

Meanwhile, Europe – UK, at least – pretty much maintains its two breaks per hour with a total of about 8 minutes (primetime) of non-program time.  Wait, maybe it’s like the pound and you have to multiply 8 minutes by the exchange rate.  8 x 1.5 = 12 minutes…no, that can’t be right.  So they’re at about half what we’re wading through.  France’ll get you maybe 9 minutes depending on the daypart, but only one commercial break if the program runs less than an hour.

So, back here, is there a chance for reduction of commercial time in the US?  Well, lots of stations and networks have tried it.  Years ago, the now-defunct Avco Broadcasting Company cut two minutes per hour from its commercial load thinking that the better environment would be more attractive to advertisers.  That didn’t work. The occasional “without commercial interruption” doesn’t seem to move the viewership needle on the ratings side so might as well run the spots and make some dough.

What’s really fun is seeing syndicated fare running in a local market.  You can tell how successful the sales team is – or isn’t – by the number of PSA’s that run in the preformatted long breaks.  Of course, sometimes that’s the syndicator’s sales team but usually a syndicator will run makegoods for underdelivery in that or another show.

And as it all continues, we manage to make it through, even when we let the flat-screen play, muted while we make a five-minute call.  My favorite is to watch a show live but switch to a DVR-ed show during the commercial breaks.  Don’t laugh.  I have the formats pretty well memorized for a lot of shows and it’s easy.  With the DVR-ed shows, once you know the format, all you have to do is count the “skip forwards”, :30 at a time. 

In all fairness, I do watch commercials – ones that interest me, as it’s supposed to be.  In a world of individual targeting, that’s all I’d be getting.  But it’s not the case here so I keep that remote at hand.  Way I figure it, I save myself a half-hour or more a day.  Cool. 
That’s more time to watch as commercial loads increase. 

Are we becoming more like Europe?  We blew past Europe and are speeding toward Barnum&Baileyville.  Maybe we’re all heading for E. B. White’s world of IRTNOG – the whole show gets condensed to one word. A cast member says it and we have 29:30 of spots. 

Say, did you hear the one about the prisoners who just numbered their jokes…