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Shows suffer as commercial breaks stretch longer

Shows suffer as commercial breaks stretch longer — ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” ”Star Trek: Voyager,” and ”The Today Show” have all lost time to ads

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Howard Stern fans know the drill. Every morning, in a Pavlovian ritual peculiar to the experienced radio listener, they await his inevitable words ”We’ll be back right after these messages.” That’s their cue to jump in the shower, make breakfast, get dressed, and still be back in time for another blistering tirade.

TV viewers are increasingly learning the same lesson. How’s this for disturbing: According to a study by SFM Media, the four major broadcast networks added a staggering 1,133 commercials in fall ’97 — this after adding 2,156 in 1996-97. ”It used to be that hour-long series had 45, 46 minutes of program time,” former ABC and NBC head Fred Silverman says of such series as L.A. Law and St. Elsewhere. ”Now, it’s down to 41 or 42. In the case of a scripted show, that’s half an act.”

Though radio listeners and TV viewers no doubt have more colorful terms for the ever-increasing hucksterism eating away at programming content, the broadcasting biz prefers the more innocuous clutter. Blame it on a stock market in overdrive, the burgeoning power of e-commerce, or good ol’ corporate greed, the result is the same: There’s simply less there there on the air.

”Increasing advertising certainly flies in the face of the need for these guys to hold on to the audiences they have left,” says Chris Geraci, senior VP of national TV buying at BBDO/OMD, an advertising agency. Which is an understated way of saying, Hello? For five years, the broadcast networks have been moaning over losing viewers. This is your strategy for hanging on to them?

Of course, the audience isn’t the priority here. Nor are the advertisers. The beneficiaries are those who own the radio stations and networks. Let’s go to the numbers. In April, EmpowerMediaMarketing released a study indicating radio-commercial clutter had increased in nearly all major markets by an average of 6 percent from 1998 to 1999. As a result, in the past three years, says Ron Rodrigues, editor in chief of the trade bible Radio & Records, ”the cost of [buying ad time] has gone up tremendously. It’s dramatic.” More dramatic still: the radio industry’s 15 percent jump in ad revenue, to well over $17 billion in ’99.

”This is one of the ill effects of the so-called booming economy,” says Michael Harrison, editor of the radio trade publication Talkers. ”One man’s clutter is another man’s fortune.” Emblematic of that sensibility is a software program called, brazenly enough, Cashbox, which digitally compresses pauses and dead air to squeeze up to five more minutes of commercial time from a typical hour of Laura Schlessinger or Rush Limbaugh. When you consider that ads go for an average of $14,000 per minute for Limbaugh and $11,000 for Schlessinger, that’s a tasty per-hour windfall.

Who or what is to blame? Harrison says it’s the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which loosened federal law regarding the number of stations any one company could own. The result: an industry dominated by megacorporations — such as Clear Channel and Viacom/CBS — rather than local owners with ties to the community. ”The radio industry is no longer run by people who are in the business because they love broadcasting,” says Harrison. The operative credo has become ”to hell with content, let’s get more spots in.”