Buyers, Nets Try To Skirt Clutter With Sponsor Deals

With prime-time TV ad clutter reaching an all-time high this year, advertisers and networks are holding talks to explore ways to improve TV’s crowded ad environment, which buyers say is partly to blame for declining viewership.

Several ad agencies last week said they are in discussions with TV networks about exclusive sponsorship deals that will cut back the number of ads in a particular sponsored program. Philips Electronics recently struck such a deal with CBS’ 60 Minutes, in which the client was the only one to run ads and the amount of ad time was reduced by about half. The client paid a higher rate—as part of a multiprogram ad package—and CBS received what it normally gets for a full load of spots in the broadcast.

Publicis Groupe’s MediaVest and some of its clients, such as Procter & Gamble, Kraft, Masterfoods and Capital One, are working with The Weather Channel and three or four broader-based networks in a test starting in November that will assess how different program formats, commercial inventory loads, pod lengths and other metrics affect viewer engagement and commercial recall.

“The main issue is enhancing the viewer experience,” said Donna Speciale, MediaVest’s president of U.S. broadcast. “No one has really sought to find out what’s at the root of the viewer defections and whether they’re not watching because they are not happy with the experience,” she said, adding that the test will be completed by January.

The increasing interest in sponsorship deals comes as new statistics from Nielsen Monitor-Plus report record levels of prime-time clutter (commercials, promos and other non-program content) this year. According to the Nielsen numbers, from January through September of this year, prime-time cable clutter averaged 15 minutes and 10 seconds per hour, up 2 percent from 14 minutes and 51 seconds per hour for the same period in 2004. The broadcast networks in general stayed steady with the average amount of prime-time clutter in 2005, inching closer to the 16-minute-per-hour mark. Nielsen pins it at 15 minutes and 47 seconds through the first nine months of the year, up slightly from the 15 minutes and 43 seconds average for the same period a year ago.

But for the most popular shows, the networks are shoehorning even more ad units into their programs. Case in point: ABC’s Desperate Housewives. A breakout by Nielsen (owned by Adweek parent VNU) of two airings this season shows a total of 17 minutes of clutter in each episode—12 percent more than this year’s clutter average across prime time. A year ago, per Nielsen, the clutter load in Desperate was more in line with the broadcast network average.

It’s a sore point for advertisers, because many believe clutter chases viewers away and translates to poorer recall by those remaining. Yet clutter continues to increase, especially on cable, where for the first time this year it surpassed 15 minutes per hour.

And now clutter-busting deals are top of mind at networks and agencies alike. Chris Simon, evp, network sales, CBS, said, “We’re in conversations with clients, with Philips about next steps and what else we can do. You’ll see more of these ideas and different ways of presenting programs happening.”

Speciale said she is working on several sole-sponsor, reduced-inventory buys and expects to complete “a few of them by the end of the year.” Andy Donchin, evp, director of national broadcast for Aegis Group’s Carat, which negotiated the Philips-60 Minutes buy, said several additional Carat clients are considering similar deals. “We are going to make an effort to do it more often,” he said.

But some agency executives wonder whether higher-priced, reduced-inventory deals make sense long term. “I don’t see a lot of clients going that route,” says Bill McOwen, evp, national broadcast, at Havas’ MPG. Given the higher ad rates involved, he said, “It’s not an efficient way to spend money.”