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TV viewers are seeing shorter shows

TV viewers are seeing less and less of their favorite shows as commercials and network promos gobble up more and more time.

"Pretty soon we'll be writing pamphlets, not scripts," says Steven L. Sears, supervising producer and writer of the syndicated hit "Xena: Warrior Princess."Like many creative types, Sears is frustrated that hour dramas like "Xena" now run under 45 minutes. And it's getting worse.

"What's happened is that we've lost time over the years," says Michael Warren, the co-creator and executive producer of the sitcoms "Step by Step" and "Family Matters," which moved from ABC to CBS this fall.

Warren says each show has been cut back 20 seconds the last three seasons.

"Now we syndicate the network versions," he says incredulously.

Network shows used to be trimmed a few minutes to accommodate the increased commercial load when they were shown in syndication.

"Commercials clutter as much as 20 minutes of every commercial broadcast hour," says Ervin S. Duggan, president and chief executive of ad-free PBS.

"I think the FCC is much more reluctant now than it was a generation ago to do intrusive regulation in this field."

The Association of American Advertising Agencies calculated the time devoted to ads and promos in a November 1996 survey. Non-program material per hour on the major broadcast networks in prime time totaled 15 minutes, 19 seconds on ABC; 14:53 on CBS; 15:19 on NBC; and 16:07 on Fox.

"In every case, with one exception, there are annual increases going back to our first survey in 1989," said Birch Drake, president of the Association of American Advertising Agencies.

The number of commercial interruptions haven't increased significantly in recent years, but the breaks run two, three and four times longer than they did a few years ago. They're also made up of shorter announcements, allowing for more products or programs to be hyped.

Increasing commercial clutter is cause for concern to advertisers as well as viewers.

"What we don't like is the concurrent increase in basic promotion time," Drake said.

The bursts of network promos - those 5- to 30-second shots highlighting upcoming shows - take about 41/2 minutes out of each hour on CBS, Fox and NBC. And they take just under four minutes on ABC.

"From an advertising agency's standpoint, we don't like this insatiable trend," Drake said.

"Clearly the more clutter we have is a problem. It's more likely the viewers (will) use their remote and roam. Then we have a big problem. . . .

"Generally an advertiser will value their time less with a network with a high load."

A potential concern would be the recent introduction of new VCRs by two major distributors whose main selling point is that the units' brilliant circuits automatically eliminate commercials on playback, something viewers with ordinary VCRs had to to zap manually before.

Before VCRs, a generation ago, the networks' practice was to sell six minutes of national ads per hour, give their local stations between one and two minutes to sell, and maybe run one or two network promos per hour.

That left 51 minutes for a "Rockford Files" (NBC) or "Starsky and Hutch" (ABC) for example, and 25 or even 253/4 minutes for half hour shows like "The Brady Bunch" (ABC) and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (CBS).

The '90s sci-fi hit, "The X-Files" (Fox), clocks in just under 44 minutes seven seconds - seven minutes shy predecessors in the '60s and '70s. That's the equivalent of a typical, fourth act's running time in today's dramas.

Today, a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" is about the only avenue for a long-running program without substantial commercial interruption. That's because the greeting card company is the sole sponsor and allows only two minutes of its ads between acts.