In the current marketplace of syndicated television, obtaining a greater share of advertising dollars this season and in seasons ahead could come down to a matter of time. Make that a matter of attractive advertising time, as in the space between the end of one section of an episode and the beginning of another.
Those spaces, known in the business as commercial pods, are growing by the season on many broadcast and cable networks. Commercial breaks that used to be two minutes at best now regularly exceed four minutes or more, no matter what the time period. Some industry analysts believe the clutter of advertising and station/network promotion inside pods has reached an alarming point, declaring they are a factor in an accelerated decline of network viewership in recent months and an accelerated viewership of Netflix and other services available through smart TVs and smart TV-making devices like Roku and Chromecast.
Viacom recently announced a planned reduction in available commercial inventory and other networks are considering similar moves, spurred on by senior programming executives with responsibility for growing their network’s ratings. National syndicated television companies such as Sony Pictures Television, 20th Television and Warner Bros. have begun capitalizing on advertisers’ growing concerns that viewing of their commercials is also negatively impacted by commercial pod length.
A new Kantar Media study out last week illuminates the situation. From April to June 2015, broadcast network ad time was up 2.8 percent over the same three-month period last year, while cable network ad time was up 4.6 percent. Two-thirds of all networks taking part in Kantar's study increased their ad time and five networks ended June averaging 20 minutes or more of advertising and promos an hour.
You read that right: Five networks went into this summer with one-third or more of any hour in their schedule taken up by ads and promos.
By contrast, syndicated series, whether first-run or original, generally keep their ad allocation in check: six minutes for half-hour series, 10-12 minutes for hour series. The check is maintained no matter the breakdown between spots local stations sell on their own and messages sold nationally (anywhere from one to two minutes in half-hour programs/two to six minutes for hour-long programs).
If broadcast and cable networks answer the pressure to make up for lost ad revenue and viewership via more pod time, or more ads and promos stuffed into those pods, syndicators can make the case among advertisers and media buyers for being the stable attraction amid instability. "Their lack of clutter will be an advantage," says Carol Hinnant, Rentrak's senior vice president of national TV sales. Her company, now on track to merge with audience measurement firm comScore, just introduced a service tracking syndicated content on a 24/7 basis. (Editor’s note: We’ll have more on this development in an upcoming column.) Uproar within the advertising community over clutter and how to address alternatives was one of the factors Rentrak looked at, prior to going forward with this service.
A few syndicators are countering the increase in pods or pod time elsewhere with decreases to some degree. Commercial breaks on first-run and off-channel series distributed by Sony Pictures Television's syndication division run up to two minutes max. The division also utilizes the opening one-minute national pod in a number of its top attractions, such as “Seinfeld.” That's the strategy Sony intends to stick with, declares executive vice president of ad sales Stuart Zimmerman. "(Less) clutter is a selling point for syndication," he says. "We have some of the lowest commercial loads in the industry. An ad is rarely more than 30 seconds or a minute from content. Our loads are set and don't change. We don't arbitrarily add inventory.”
For 20th Television's daily repeats of “Modern Family,” the first commercial break is 60 seconds, taken up by a pair of 30-second national messages. It's more than a throwback to the era when every commercial break was one minute tops. "It's become a valuable avenue to get noticed," adds Michael Teicher, 20th's executive vice president of media sales. "That standalone pod demonstrates that we're talking the talk of an uncluttered environment."
As concerns about broadcast and cable network performance early in this 2015-16 season build, no one's alarmed, at least in public, about how syndicators are making out so far. The top original performers from “Judge Judy” and “Wheel of Fortune” to “Jeopardy!,” “Family Feud,” “Dr. P” and “Litton's Weekend Adventure” are steady or slightly up from early in the 2014-15 season, according to Nielsen. At least two newcomers – “Fab Life” from Disney/ABC and “Crime Watch Daily” from Warner Bros. -- show promise.
Although syndicators will not detail how much revenue they are producing from their counter-clutter measures, they are on record that the current ad inventory mix serves their interests by serving the interests of viewers and advertisers.
Until the next time, stay well and stay tuned!
Simon's special series on syndication continues here.
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