Radio Takes The Lead In Cleaning Up The Clutter

Broadcast clutter is one of the most troublesome challenges in the media world. And it’s getting worse. But as a medium, radio seems the most determined to do something about the ever-increasing onslaught of commercial messages.

According to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, U.S. viewers and listeners were bombarded with more than 106 million separate broadcast commercial messages in 2003. Through the first 11 months of 2004, that had jumped to 108 million.

And the clutter continues to grow despite acknowledgement from agencies, clients and viewers that the increase in volume year in and year out reduces the recall and effectiveness of individual ads.

But credit the radio industry for heeding the complaints. Clear Channel Radio implemented a plan last month, dubbed the “Less Is More” campaign, with the goal of reducing ad units by an average of 19 percent across its 1,200-plus-station nationwide radio roster.

Infinity Broadcasting has also cut back its ad inventory on about one-third of its stations by anywhere from 5 percent to 22 percent, said Joel Hollander, Infinity’s CEO.

Other radio groups, including Cox, Entercom and Emmis, have followed suit. According to Wall Street firm Harris Nesbitt, which last week issued the first results of its new Harris Nesbitt Radio Airtime Index, tracking ad inventory in the top 10 markets, total radio ad volume dropped 13 percent in the fourth quarter. That’s quite a bullet to bite, considering that demand for ad time peaks in the second half of that quarter, during the holiday season.

The idea is to get advertisers to pay more for a less cluttered environment. And if radio’s gambit works—if it can lower inventory levels while growing revenue—will that give advertisers and agencies new leverage in the battle to reduce clutter on TV, particularly on cable, which is frequently criticized for its excessive inventory loads?

“It’s possible,” said Sue Johenning, evp and director of local broadcast at Interpublic Group’s Initiative. “Cable does need to improve the mix of programming and commercial messages.”

The Harris Nesbitt index shows that Clear Channel met its clutter-reduction goal of airing less than nine minutes of commercials per hour in January, compared with almost 12 minutes previously. By comparison, MindShare’s latest clutter study for TV, drawing on data from 2003, shows the major broadcast and cable networks averaging between 12 and 15.5 minutes of ads and promotions per hour in prime time.

The radio initiative comes after years of complaints from agencies and advertisers that cluttered airwaves drive away listeners. Indeed, they realize that the draw, at least in part, for the 4 million subscribers of XM and Sirius is that those pay satellite-radio services are largely commercial free.

Radio’s anti-clutter move also comes amid a sales slump for a medium that still hasn’t recovered fully from the recession. In fact, some industry executives contend that radio’s sales woes stem in part from the fact that inventory expanded significantly before the dot-com bubble burble burst and the recession hit. That left the industry with a lot of excess inventory it couldn’t sell. “This is something that had to be done because of the ramping up of the inventory loads over the last 10 years or so,” Johenning said.

Sales remain less than robust—total sales in 2004 were up just 2 percent over 2003, according the Radio Advertising Bureau, which released those figures last week.

Whether the reduced inventory loads will jump-start sales and revenue remains to be seen. Harris Nesbitt analyst Lee Westerfield said the radio business will likely take a “yearlong hit” on revenues as it feverishly tries to convince advertisers that a less cluttered environment is worth paying more for.

Many buyers aren’t convinced that’s true. “We like to reward less cluttered networks with increased share of business, not higher rates,” said Andy Donchin, svp and director of national broadcast at Aegis Group’s Carat.

A rep at Clear Channel declined to discuss sales impact other than to say some “short-term volatility” is expected. Part of the company’s strategy is to get clients to use 15- and 30-second spots, as opposed to :60s, the current norm. Brand recall for :30s and :15s averages 93 percent of that produced by :60s, according to research the company recently commissioned from Burke Inc. The company is using such data to try to get clients to pay higher rates. It is also trying to charge more for first-in-pod spots and is experimenting with one-spot breaks.

Attention spans are shorter in a cluttered world, said Jim Cook, who leads Clear Channel’s creative services group. “Better creative is clearly the point of differentiation in terms of effectiveness,” he said.

But there is not a lot of optimism that cable TV can be persuaded to cut back in the same way that radio has. Donchin of Carat said he has been down this road before. The discussion, he said, usually concludes with a network asking if he would be willing to pay 10 percent more for an environment with fewer ads. “I say no, and we move on, end of discussion,” Donchin said. “It’s a big concern. You know viewers aren’t sitting through all those commercials. And the other thing with cable is all the direct response ads, so it’s both a clutter issue and the quality of the commercials.”

Donna Speciale, president of U.S. broadcast at Publicis Groupe’s MediaVest, credited clutter for making TiVo a household name. “The vendors really created this viewing environment with these long commercial pods that have taught viewers that they can get up and pretty much do whatever they want, because there’s a long break coming up,” she said.

Cable executives aren’t lining up to cut inventory loads. Said one cable sales executive: “If radio sales were robust, they wouldn’t be cutting inventory, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Mel Berning, evp of ad sales for the A&E Networks, said “clutter levels have been much higher on radio” but added that cable also should be looking for ways to reduce it. Breaks that consist of one two-minute-long spot was one idea he offered.

However, the real change is likely to come not with a reduction in commercial load but when the industry figures out a way to prevent viewers from jumping up at the beginning of a commercial break to do five different household chores, said Speciale. “We need to change viewers’ habits,” she said. “One vendor isn’t going to accomplish anything.”