MEDIA FORUM: Do on-air promos and ads cause too much clutter?

The proliferation of ads and channels' promos is causing more viewers to change over to avoid them. What needs to be done, Jeremy Lee asks.

Those giants of British broadcasting and pillars of respectability, Greg Dyke, Tony Ball and, er, Michael Barrymore, were packing them in at this year's annual television luvvie-fest in Edinburgh. But those involved at the coalface of commercial TV also had their chance to debate a burning issue of the day.

While not as gripping as watching Barrymore desperately touting himself around for a new TV contract, the problem of retaining audiences, particularly through commercial breaks, is just as worrying. Although not a new problem, multichannel TV is going through a massive growth period and audiences are fragmenting as never before. Broadcasters have responded by introducing more on-air promos. With increased choice, keeping audiences watching your station, or indeed your ad, is becoming more challenging.

And that is assuming your audience is not already using technology to avoid your ad completely. Sales of Sky's personal video recorder system, Sky+, have recently reached the 100,000 mark. While this is a relatively tiny percentage of the UK's 24 million TV homes, Sky is planning an ad blitz in the autumn, and as Ball observers know, Sky plays to win.

So what can the advertiser and TV communities do about this? Louise Jones, the executive strategy director at PHD, thinks that advertising and onscreen clutter is to blame for falling audiences. While an industry-wide problem, she asserts that some channels are worse than others. "Zapping is a problem across all of the broadcasters, but it's more of a problem on the satellite channels - because on satellite the breaks are longer and there's more clutter."

Jones has devised a controversial solution to this, one she first articulated at a TV conference earlier this year in Bath. She thinks that nothing short of a trading revolution is needed - breaks should be shortened to keep a viewer's attention and advertisers should be prepared to pay for this. "With shorter breaks you get better recall and I think people would be prepared to pay for this," she explains.

An interesting thought but, with the exception of UKTV, few broadcasters seem willing to take the plunge. Another of Jones' suggestions is that the TV companies look more carefully at the scheduling of ads as well as the length of the breaks. "It's in the broadcaster's interest to run the right ads in the right breaks," she argues. While broadcasters should shoulder some of the blame, Jones thinks creatives must also bear some responsibility. "People are more likely to flick if they do not find the ad engaging."

With 12 minutes of ad breaks every hour, Richard Kilgarriff, the vice-president and director of Cartoon Network, Boomerang and Toonami, is one of those people likely to be giving Jones such a headache. In the super-served children's market, and with a particularly fickle audience, he recognises that something must be done to keep his viewers tuned in, particularly with such long breaks. "In any market that has gone from four competitors to more than 25 and with the BBC's children's offering, zapping is going to be a problem. We do everything humanly possible to keep viewers watching and the exciting thing to look for is enhanced TV, which has come to the fore."

Kilgarriff claims enhanced TV, which provides additional features such as gaming in the digital space, quizzes and competitions, will improve the viewer experience and create a relationship between them and the channel.

Another wheeze Cartoon Network has dreamed up is running short-form programming in ad breaks to keep people watching.

Jim Hytner, the marketing director at ITV Network, is a man who knows a thing or two about clutter. Last year, he introduced a cleaner and slicker on-air look to the ITV1 channel. Included in this redesign was a "virtual EPG", which appears on screen to indicate upcoming programmes. The idea seems to have worked. "Year on year, looking at the same shows, we are keeping people in longer," he reports. While the on-air image may have improved the look of the channel, Hytner thinks there is a more fundamental issue at stake in keeping audiences watching - quality programming. "The show and the schedule rule," he says.

Hytner disagrees with Kilgarriff over enhanced technology, arguing that it is little more than the icing on the cake: "If you fall in love with a bit of technology there's something wrong with your sex life. It's as if technology, not a great schedule, drives popular demand and this is wrong. For example, look at Big Brother. This year there was an amazing array of interactivity elements but audiences were down 20 per cent. Why? Because the show wasn't very good."

As for PVRs, while Jones thinks that it could have serious implications for the industry, Hytner is more sanguine.

"TiVo was sent packing and Sky+ only has 100,000 users. Given that the market is worth in excess of £3.1 billion, advertisers aren't exactly running from spot advertising. You can over-analyse these things - if your schedule is good, then they'll stay in."

One way for advertisers to get around the clutter is to pay a premium for the position in the ad break. Martin Sambrook, the global account director at Media Audits, is unsure if this provides any real value. "I find clutter a fascinating area of confusion. Firstly, it's remarkable that if one is prepared to pay a premium to cut through the clutter, this isn't balanced with any empirical evidence that it works in a way that justifies the premium attached to it. Do sales or awareness justify premium? No-one has adequately addressed this. Lots of crude lip service is paid to the 'assumed' value of the premium that should be paid."

Sambrook shares Jones' concern about the length of breaks. "An area of urgent investigation is the length of ad breaks on non-terrestrial versus terrestrial channels and the impact of ad cut-through," he says.

Given that broadcasters are reacting to the problems of clutter and zapping, what can the creative industry do?

Andrew Cracknell, the creative director at Bates Europe, is frustrated by the number of on-air promos TV companies run - he can't believe they're not clutter. "People don't turn on the telly to watch the ads and you have to be careful about the way TV companies serve them. The public doesn't differentiate between on-air promos and ads."

Cracknell doesn't think producing content specifically for the channel is feasible. "It would be ridiculously expensive," he points out. Although acknowledging that there is a problem with clutter overall, Cracknell thinks the UK's experience is not as problematic as other markets. "There's an acceptance of ads here you don't get in the US and that's because people feel they get something at the end," he says.