Broadcasters fear it, viewers don’t want it and brand advertisers should reject it.
But such all-out opposition may not be enough to stop Ed Richards, head of media regulator Ofcom, from forcing through a rise in the amount of advertising allowed on commercial television.
Long seen as a loyal poodle to the interests of UK media owners, watchdog Richards is about to use their legs as lamp-posts. We refer, of course, to Ofcom’s proposal to increase the amount of advertising UK broadcasters are allowed to show.
Broadcasters oppose any move to allow more minutes of advertising. At present ITV, Channel 4 and Five are permitted to run seven minutes of ads per hour averaged over the day, with a maximum of 12 minutes in peak time on ITV 1.
Such restrictions save viewers from US-style advertising bombardment. The ads acquire a value which would be lessened if the supply of air-time were increased. The seven-minute limit makes the ads more expensive, militating towards greater expenditure on production and encouraging creativity.
Broadcasters know increased minutage could be the beginning of the end for the Golden Goose on which their business is based. With some of their core areas such as junk food and alcohol ads facing restrictions, they could end up saddled with more time to advertise fewer products. Direct response advertisers selling loans, gold chains and time-shares would happily fill the void.
Satellite and cable channels, which are allowed an average of 9 minutes an hour of ads, already struggle to fill those minutes.
If the rules are changed, broadcasters fear being dragged into trench warfare with rivals and being pressurised to boost the amount of ads they show, however unwillingly.
Meanwhile, the biggest brand owners know that the limits work in their favour, increasing the cost of advertising and keeping smaller rivals off the screens.
And what of viewers? They grudgingly put up with ads knowing they pay for their favourite programmes. They can even be entertaining in their own right. They don’t want more ads. They want better ads.
Other rule changes considered in the Ofcom consultation are less controversial. Loosening restrictions on the kind of programmes that can contain ads (such as religious documentaries) and the phasing of breaks (20 minutes between them), allow greater flexibility.
Given that the proposal on increased minutes is only at the consultation stage, surely the negative feedback from all interested parties will persuade Ofcom to reject the idea? Hopefully.
But this week has also seen the publication of the NHS promotion code to regulate hospital advertising under the Patient Choice agenda. Despite the Department of Health’s own consultation document warning against allowing hospitals to set their own ad budgets, the new code places no cap on marketing expenditure. This effectively gives the green light to broadcast ads for hospitals.
The Government was expected to reject such a move as it could damage the reputation of the National Health Service if hospital trusts are seen ploughing cash into ad campaigns that could be used for frontline services.
Government watchdogs do not necessarily legislate in the best interests of the industries they regulate. But broadcasters have always thought that Ofcom was on their side.
So go on, Ed. Admit it. Existing limits on advertising minutes mean less is more for all concerned.