MEDIA: FORUM; Should the ITC heed calls for extra ad minutage?

Is it time to look again at the amount of commercial airtime terrestrial channels can carry? The ceiling is currently seven minutes per hour. Advertisers want more - then again they always do. But isn’t the issue becoming increasingly irrelevant as we prepare for the launch of Channel 5 next year? Alasdair Reid reports

Is it time to look again at the amount of commercial airtime terrestrial

channels can carry? The ceiling is currently seven minutes per hour.

Advertisers want more - then again they always do. But isn’t the issue

becoming increasingly irrelevant as we prepare for the launch of Channel

5 next year? Alasdair Reid reports



If ever an organisation had a bee in its proverbial bonnet, it is the

Incorporated Society of British Advertisers with its obsession with

extra advertising minutage. The current Independent Television

Commission rules state that commercial terrestrial broadcasters can run

an average of seven minutes of advertising an hour. Last week, ISBA

announced that it was rejuvenating its campaign to raise this to nine

minutes per hour. It outlined its new strategy at this week’s ISBA

conference on media issues.



In recent years, TV inflation has often been rampant, and on almost

every occasion ISBA has demanded an increase in minutage. There has been

regular and widespread agency support for its demands - advertisers were

hurting badly and, given doubts about ITV’s ability to deliver on

audiences, it seemed a reasonable way to ease the pain.



But Channel 5 wasn’t on the horizon then. It is now. If Channel 5 takes

a significant chunk of the BBC’s audience, it will take inflationary

pressures out of the airtime market. Anyway, satellite audiences are

continuing to grow steadily, taking viewers away from the BBC and the

commercial sector. Surely, inflation isn’t that much of a problem at

present?



ITV has always been implacably opposed to increased minutage. It argues

that more ads would mean less time being devoted to programme trailers

and that this could have a devastating effect on audiences. Many

agencies agree, and have also voiced their concern about increased

clutter. They say it would diminish the power of individual commercials

and devalue the whole advertising environment.



John Blakemore, the head of ISBA’s Broadcast Action Group, is optimistic

that the time is right to make progress on this issue: ‘In all my days

as a client, ISBA hasn’t formally approached the ITC and no-one has ever

told us that we can’t have nine minutes. I’ve never heard any good

reasons why it would not be a good thing.



‘The ISBA conference is a reasonable platform for raising the issue.

There will be other elements in the campaign. The ITC has to be

convinced. Terrestrial TV companies have to be convinced. Ad agencies

have to be convinced. And I admit that a few advertisers remain to be

convinced. If I didn’t think there was a chance of making progress, I

wouldn’t be hitting my head on a brick wall. It can hurt.’



So can ISBA really hope to get widespread support? It must put forward

convincing arguments that an increase in minutage will first and

foremost benefit viewers and also have the backing of the whole industry

- broadcasters, agencies and advertisers alike. What is the ITC’s

response likely to be if ISBA decides to make a formal approach?



The ITC’s director of advertising and sponsorship, Frank Willis, says:

‘If it could be shown that there was a chronic under-financing of

programming and that minutage increases would produce more revenue,

which could be invested in better quality programmes, then there might

well be a convincing case for minutage increases.



‘But a solution that reduced programme lengths in favour of more ads,

without increasing programming budgets, would have a negative cost-

benefit balance for viewers and would not easily recommend itself to the

ITC.’



That seems to suggest that it will only really happen if broadcasters

want it. Do they? In previous skirmishes, Martin Bowley, the managing

director of Carlton UK Sales, has stated that he doesn’t like clutter

and wants to have the freedom to run effective programme promotions.

This time around, he says he doesn’t really want to get involved

publicly. ‘I had understood that, at a recent meeting with ISBA people,

Channel 5 told them that it intended to take most of its audience from

the BBC. It will be delivering 61,000 extra commercial minutes each

year. I would have thought that this would alleviate the ISBA’s

concerns,’ he says.



Phil Georgiadis, the chief executive of Initiative Media, says that the

UK viewer is exposed to far less clutter than those in other European

countries, where a nine-minute airtime ceiling is common. ‘While we must

be mindful of clutter, an increase in minutage could be managed to avoid

huge reductions in advertising effectiveness. Let’s face it, prime-time

already carries up to 12 minutes per hour [although the average is 7.5

minutes per hour in peak-time, many contractors pack the highest-rating

programme with ads]. And I have not heard much resistance to this from

the parties now fighting against an increase in minutage,’ he states.



Georgiadis believes that more minutage would mean cheaper airtime and

that this would more than compensate for any possible reduction in

advertising effectiveness. This would be especially true of daytime TV,

where the effects of greater availability would be felt almost

immediately. ‘Of course, Channel 5 will reduce inflationary pressure in

terms of cost per thousands, but not in terms of cost of coverage, which

should be the currency in which we trade.’



That’s not a view that Mark Cranmer, the managing director of Motive,

supports: ‘If you want to bring absolute costs down, there are plenty of

opportunities these days to buy cheap cost-per-thousand airtime. There

are abundant opportunities for exposure, and more are on the way. When

inflation is an issue, the important side of the equation is audience

supply, and we all need quality audiences. You have a better chance of

attracting quality audiences by providing engaging subject matter - and

with the great demise of television viewing as a major leisure

phenomenon, anything that adds to the interruption and clutter of

viewing matter will not help to reverse that decline.’



ISBA lobbyists often point to the rest of Europe or the US, where much

more airtime per hour is allowed. Cranmer dismisses this reasoning:

‘They miss the point that, in this country, 40 per cent of viewing is in

a quality non-commercial environment. That’s part of our culture and

commercial television has to take account of it, too. I think you tamper

with the mainstream commercial environment at your peril. We should all

work to ensure that commercial broadcasting is more, rather than less,

engaging.’



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