What Ad Slump?

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Might the networks be tempted to pump up their revenues by adding more commercial time to their shows while the ad market is hot? nbc — whose $2.7 billion in ad revenue for last spring's up-front period dwarfed second place CBS's $1.8 million — raised some eyebrows early in October when it announced that it was adding two minutes to each episode of TV's top-rated sitcom Friends. But Jeffrey Zucker, president of nbc Entertainment, a division of General Electric, says the added minutes represent program time, not commercials. The aim is to make Friends run two minutes past the half-hour mark, pulling more viewers into the next show on nbc, the medical sitcom Scrubs. "This is not about revenue," says Zucker. "The way to take advantage ofhigh ad prices is to put on programs that work and minimize problem time periods quickly."

Still, if you think TV shows have less "show" and more ads than than they used to, you're right. The amount of "clutter"--the industry term for commercials, promotional messages and other nonprogram content — in prime-time network shows has grown from 13 min. 26 sec. in 1992 to an annoying 16 min. 8 sec. in 2001, according to the annual surveys commissioned by the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers. So far, that total is not rising this fall. Network executives insist they have no intention of taking advantage of the ad boom by increasing adtime, at least not in the short term, andadvertisers despise clutter because they believe it damages the effectiveness oftheir messages. They're wise to worry, especially as increasing numbers of viewers find ways — everything from established ad-free cable channels like hbo to such sophisticated new digital recording devices as TiVo — to avoid commercials.

Everyone is trying not to kill the golden goose — if indeed the goose is golden again. Thomas Wolzien, media analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein, is not certain that the networks' good times are going to last. "One of three things could be happening," he says. "A) The economy could be a lot stronger than we think; B) there could be a lot of pent-up demand from people who have been out of the market; or C) this could just be a last, desperate hurrah." There's a comforting thought to take to the bank.

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