Clearing the air around TV clutter

Advertisers still smarting from Stephen Byers’ contemptuous dismissal of their concerns over ITV consolidation should draw some consolation from a contentious report published this week.

Commercial Television Clutter Exposed, produced by the Billett Consultancy, may not sound the most gripping of titles, nor deal with the most engrossing of subjects to the general reader. But in its way, this is a masterly little analysis which, in true John Billett style, is mischievously designed to create the maximum amount of embarrassment to the commercial television community while simultaneously strengthening the hand of the advertiser.

It may seem remarkable, given that clutter has been a serious topic of debate at innumerable media conferences over the past decade, that no one had ever got round to quantifying it. Yet this is only the first of a series of insights provided by the report, which usefully recommends that broadcasters should be obliged in future not only to record clutter, but to pass the data to BARB so it will be publicly available to advertisers.

Another revelation is the extent and variety of clutter – defined as on-air promotions, sponsorship and programme end credits – on contemporary television. In a way, clutter is the concomitant blight of multichannel choice. All television stations must now work harder to woo the viewer with better quality programmes – and sponsorship revenue is a means to that end. At the same time, they must also minimise viewer promiscuity: hence the growing number of OAPs.

In principle, advertisers will have problems with neither of these things. An increasing number are also TV sponsors; as for OAPs, they also serve to direct viewers to breaks the advertisers have bought into.

The problem really resides in the amount of clutter invading commercial air-time and how it is deployed by the different TV companies. Here the Billett research, which explored peak time during two weeks last September on ITV London and Sky One, was able to reveal some remarkable disparities. For once, ITV does not emerge as villain of the piece. The clutter on Sky is much greater and, critically, more weighted towards centre breaks – when viewers are generally more attentive.

The report may well be right in suggesting this will affect the comparative value of channel ratings – and therefore advertisers’ scheduling. If so, Sky should not be the only station to take note. Billett shortly intends to extend his clutter research to Channel 4 and Channel 5. While no certain proof yet exists, the feeling is that C4/C5 clutter levels will fall somewhere between those of ITV and Sky One.

In general, this report should provide battle-weary advertisers with valuable ammunition. In particular, it has given the minutage debate new momentum. Now that a searing spotlight has fallen upon clutter, TV stations will find it difficult to avoid a clean-up of some sort. That will be welcome news for ISBA, the advertisers trade body, which will have an instant remedy for filling the resulting air-time void: more ads.

See Media, page 12 and Media Analysis, page 14

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