More is less when it comes to TV

Wootton: More is less when it comes to TV

As viewers are paying more than ever for TV content, Bob Wootton examines the latest Ofcom consultation on “levelling the playing field” between broadcasters’ ad schedules.

I’m on prior record about how glad I was, with hindsight, to have failed on the initial mission for which ISBA’s leading members employed me back in the late nineties.

To aid memory, that mission was to get more advertising airtime on TV, preferably on the BBC where incremental and unique reach was abundant, but failing that on the commercial “Public Service Broadcasters”; the “terrestrials” of old, now much diversified.

TV was the biggest game in town then. With rapidly diversifying demand and declining audiences, big advertisers were facing inconvenient year-on-year price hikes. Their response: give us more supply.

It became quickly apparent that nobody whatsoever would listen to such arguments with respect to the BBC. That’s just as true today despite the dramatically increased competition and worsened economic outlook for the Corporation, which now also has to shoulder the free funding of TV licences for the over-75s.

As for commercial, it happened by creep. The more relaxed minutage regime — nine minutes per hour as opposed to commercial’s seven then seven and a half — spread as multi-channel’s share of viewing grew.

Ofcom, which prides itself on being an “evidence-based regulator” has been taking soundings on this evolved status quo over the last year. Not quite sure why, given its long-term demurral to such change.

Ofcom: let ITV and C4 run more ads to compete with streaming giants

Ofcom’s reasonable hypothesis is that stricter restrictions on PSB channels are no longer justified or proportionate. But it has apparently dismissed the findings of its own research, which suggested that viewers found little justification for its proposals to relax the current rules for the PSBs.

Normally so considered, it looks like it’s got itself in a bit of bind, so in good regulatory style, it’s playing for time with further consultation around levelling the playing field and the number and scheduling of breaks.

Who is pushing for changes to TV ad length and scheduling?

Me, I’m not sure who is agitating for change, or why.

Looking at the three principal interested constituencies, it won’t be agencies. They were (rightly) never at all keen even when they used to do their (major) clients’ bidding.

The commercial folks in the broadcasters would probably like more stuff to sell so they can continue to justify (and as past evidence suggests, massage) their bonuses.

Especially in the face of this quarter’s significant spending slowdown, which was predictable to all but those who earn their livings from talking things up (i.e., most people).

But their programming colleagues might remain leery towards yet further interventions in “their” content.

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That leaves the advertisers. I don’t know what their current thinking is, though their current focus seems, sensibly, to be on cross-media and attention vectors.

But I do know they would be mad to press for more simply to show some defrayal of rising airtime costs. If they’re serious about that they should tacitly support every move to curtail gambling advertising, our industry’s Japanese knotweed.

What about the viewers?

Despite whatever viewers appear to have said to Ofcom’s research, the empirical evidence is that they aren’t fussed by more ads and sponsor mentions all over everything in the multichannel world.

A TV licence fee was all you used to need. Viewers spend almost four times that amount to access their telly now. Many homes have multiple subscriptions and the platforms, notably Sky, make switching between TV and streamed content seamlessly easy.

Granted, all the subscription platforms offer ready ways of skipping — pioneered and then acquired by TiVo two decades ago — usually by recording a programme and viewing it five or ten minutes later, fast-forwarding the ads.

Then again, while Netflix is pretty coy about the progress of its “basic with ads” option, it hasn’t exactly sold like hot cakes.

As for the advertisers, the internet has shown what happens in a market where there is unbridled access to limitless supply and it isn’t pretty.

Yet whatever they might say on conference platforms, advertiser spend patterns make it very clear that they don’t give a monkey’s about ad loads, or even the veracity of delivery or of audiences promised.

So where’s this going to go?

Well, assuming someone in Ofcom is eventually going to have to take some responsibility for a decision, levelling the playing field between all broadcasters seems reasonable, rational and logical.

Some attention to break scheduling would also be strongly advisable lest breaks be stuffed in after opening and before end credits for expediency.

Nobody will be seriously pissed off, but I doubt anyone will be especially pleased either. Most probably won’t even notice. And clever people have a knack of circumventing regulation anyway.

Just look at CRR, if you remember what that was/is.

Bob Wootton spent 40 years working in advertising, first as a media buyer at some of the UK’s leading agencies  before joining the trade body ISBA in 1996, where he was advertising and media director for 20 years. He is also the founder of Deconstruction, a media and tech consulting business, and presents The Guitar Show on YouTube.

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