Media Forum: Do we need more ads on ITV?

Would it be a good idea to give ITV more advertising minutage?

It seems a relatively modest proposal. Terrestrial broadcasters are facing inexorable audience decline due to audience fragmentation.

So why not allow ITV (and the other terrestrial commercial broadcasters) as much advertising airtime as satellite and cable channels?

At present, ITV can run up to an average of seven minutes an hour across the day but has considerable leeway to juggle its inventory - particularly in peaktime and the periods of "shoulder peak" just before and just after peak - while staying on that average figure.

ITV1 will commonly carry 12 minutes of ads in one hour within high peak (it can never run more than 12 minutes in any clock hour under any circumstances) and a handful of hours can feature nine minutes of ads. The maximum allowable in the five hours of peak and shoulder peak is 40 minutes of ads.

Thus, sources at ITV argue, peaktime is already so busy that an increase in minutage would go largely unnoticed by the general public. This is surely a vain hope. Under a more liberal regime, terrestrial TV would inevitably start to resembled the highly cluttered world of multichannel TV - we'd notice.

So, is it a good idea? Advertisers will surely think so - after all, they've been calling for this for donkey's years.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Bob Wootton, ISBA's director of media and advertising affairs, says the mood among advertisers has changed.

Advertiser enthusiasm for more minutage has cooled because there are now more effective competitive checks on inflation and because advertisers are more aware of the pernicious effects of clutter on advertising effectiveness.

He says his own views are heavily influenced by personal experience as a viewer. He explains: "Look at what happens on satellite, where they have maybe one key show in their schedule. Right away they go to 12 minutes plus promos plus sponsorship bumpers. So you might be only seven minutes into the programme when you hit that sort of big break. If you have access to personal video recorder technology, you take appropriate evasive action."

Andy Barnes, the sales director of Channel 4, is determined to sit on the fence with this one. But he agrees that advertising effectiveness will be top of many people's minds here. He states: "You have to balance a number of considerations, one of which has to be the effectiveness of an ad in relation to the length of the break in which it appears. Monetising extra airtime might not be straightforward. You should ask advertisers, if they had a choice between a five-minute break and a three-minute break, which they would prefer."

On the other hand, he points out, European Union rules allow 12 minutes of ads per clock hour to be shown - and, indeed, cable and satellite have this leeway. There is an argument, he suggests, for terrestrial to play by the same rules.

Some buyers, however, smell a rat. They believe that ITV is blatantly seeking ways to wriggle out of the straitjacket of Contract Rights Renewal.

Andy Roberts, the executive buying director of Starcom, states: "If ITV puts up minutage, it will improve its delivery (of commercial impacts) relative to the whole market and thus improve its apparent position under CRR. We would have to have assurances that this change was properly reflected by a readjustment of the CRR mechanism."

ITV sources say the issue is by no means as simple as this. They point out that the last time there was an increase in airtime, it triggered a downturn in the market. Ofcom has also told Campaign that it will go through any ITV proposals with a fine-tooth comb (though it has received no formal approach as yet) and will examine very carefully the implications for CRR.

But Roberts maintains that ITV in particular should be left in no doubt about what the market will think. "We pay a very high premium to advertise on ITV and having a less cluttered environment makes that premium slightly less unbearable," he states.

Andy Pearch, the chief executive of Billetts Media Consulting, agrees.

He concludes: "We did some research that proved ad recall in longer breaks is less effective than in shorter breaks, by a factor of about 10 per cent. We concluded breaks should remain short and tightly structured, but there should be more freedom for stations to vary break formats. We would like to see more shorter breaks, and we would like channels to have more scope to match minutage to advertiser demand at key times of the year."

MAYBE - Bob Wootton, director of media and advertising affairs, ISBA

"In the past, many advertisers thought it made sense for terrestrial rules to be allowed to harmonise upwards to come into line with satellite. I think that the mood has now changed slightly."

MAYBE - Andy Barnes, sales director, Channel 4

"As satellite and cable grows in importance, you'd think terrestrial television would have a right to lobby for a change, bringing terrestrial television into line with the rules covering cable and satellite."

NO - Andy Roberts, executive buying director, Starcom

"We are not in the business of rewarding ITV for making its product worse. We are fundamentally determined to protect the broadcasting advertising environment."

NO - Andy Pearch, chief executive, Billetts Media Consulting

"You can't give ITV more minutage and expect agencies to maintain its price premium. As Ofcom has been pleased with the outcome of the CRR, I can't see ITV getting its way for a few years yet."

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