The Independent Television Commission has ruled in favour of
maintaining the status quo on TV advertising minutage. This was
predictable. The ITC is charged to protect viewers’ interests. There is
no duty of care to advertisers.
Rightly, the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers is concerned
about rising TV costs and has been lobbying hard for an increase in
advertising minutage from an average of seven to nine minutes per hour.
This is a setback but no doubt the lobbying will continue.
ITV opposes increasing minutage. It fears advertisers will capitalise on
lower prices by spending less; that’s a good deal for advertisers but a
shotgun blast through the foot for the ITV companies.
This is overly alarmist. First, as ISBA recognises, minutage increases
would need to be phased in. Second, lower costs would expand the
The ITV companies are unconvinced. In time, however, competition will
persuade them to add their powerful voice to the lobby for more
Why? Because revenue follows audience and, as cable and satellite
audiences grow, money will leak out of ITV. At some point, ITV will
judge that there is more to gain from expanding its audience than from
Publicly, much of the debate has focused on how it will affect viewers’
response to advertising. The argument is that extra advertising will
serve only to encourage channel switching or the pursuit of some other
distraction, with damaging consequences for the viewing of both
programmes and commercials.
We shouldn’t dismiss this point of view. Common sense tells us that
clutter may reduce attention to any individual ad. It is true that
people tend to be good at remembering ads of interest and at blocking
out most of the others.
The big doubt is not about viewers’ ability to retain information but
their willingness to receive it. With the near-universal ownership of
remote control and an ever-increasing number of channels, there is a
real risk that the ad break will become a browse break.
Increasing minutage will have a one-off effect on costs, so it will not
address the vexatious issue of inflation. However, it will deliver a
saving to be enjoyed for all time. The magnitude of this saving will
vary dramatically depending on where in the day the extra airtime goes.
Importantly, though, it is measurable.
In contrast, it is very difficult to put a number on the impact of
longer ad breaks. Experiments show that ad recall falls off considerably
when the length of the break increases substantially.
This confirms what we intuitively know to be true - viewers tire of long
ad breaks. But laboratory tests don’t help us with the question in hand:
what happens if the increase is modest, say, by two minutes an hour or
I’ve no idea how much effect increased minutage will have. I suspect it
would be devilishly difficult to measure, although the Institute of
Practitioners in Advertising deserves credit for linking its own
proposal of a modest increase in airtime to the measurement of its
impact on advertising.
What does concern me is the process by which decisions are made.
I am reminded of a story from school. Frogs can’t sense small
temperature changes so, if the temperature in a pool of water rises
slowly enough, the frog will allow itself to be cooked. This may be a
useful parable in the minutage debate.
It is precisely because of this inability to quantify the effect that
the argument for lengthening commercial breaks will, as is likely,
This is a concern, not because ad breaks will get longer but because it
is a process in which the measurable takes precedence over the