With the 30-second spot under threat from all quarters, broadcasters are being forced to think again about how advertisers can best get through to their audiences.
Judging by two examples in recent weeks, they have failed to settle on a solution, if there is one.
In fact, the strategies of two broadcasters, admittedly very different ones, show just how far apart some of the latest thinking is.
The onset of PVRs, fragmentation, and the erosion of the power of terrestrial broadcasters has forced the TV industry to look for new ways of ensuring its advertising messages get across.
But, while ITV is in negotiations with Ofcom to get the go-ahead to increase the limit on ad breaks from an average of seven minutes per hour to nine, others are claiming that less advertising, rather than more, is the way forward.
Disney-owned ABC1's decision to run its ad breaks within each half hour of programming and not at the end – providing advertisers with better standout, they argue – is one approach.
Simon Bailey, vice president and deputy managing director of ABC1 parent Branded TV UK, says the decision to exclude end breaks from ABC1 was to establish a point of differentiation for advertisers.
"Having launched ABC1 as a new channel last September, we had the opportunity to consider what would make ABC1 stand out from the crowd in a cluttered environment," says Bailey, adding that reaction from the advertising community has been positive so far.
Citing its recent deal with Procter & Gamble – the first major advertiser to sign up with ABC1 – Bailey says: "Our strategy has always been to look for quality advertisers to take on initially, rather than just flood the airtime with anybody and that has appealed to some pretty big advertisers like P&G."
The move, of course, also gives the broadcasters a better chance of hanging on to viewers in between shows.
ABC1 is not the first to tinker with the structure of its TV ads.
Channel 4 used shorter breaks during its coverage of the cricket, while Formula 1 racing on ITV also makes use of quicker ad slots.
Sealed by nature of the deal
Bernard Balderson, P&G associate director of UK Media, says the decision to go with ABC1 was less about the format of its ad breaks and more about the deal that was struck.
"I don't think we should make too much of this because we're not choosing to advertise on ABC1 simply because it has centre-breaks. We’re doing it because we have an agreement which is fair."
Chris Williams, buying director at Starcom, believes that while it might limit channel hopping at the end of a show, there was a danger of frustrating and annoying the viewer.
"In a way, it either could arguably make the advertising within that break less effective or people could just mentally reset the time when they start watching the programme."
However, regardless of the format, ultimately Williams feels that it all comes down to audience levels. "The currency the market uses is viewing levels and size of audience. They are less focused on whether it's engaged or not. If advertisers really cared, they wouldn't increase their spend into multi-channel stations."
Kelly Martin, broadcast manager at MPG, is also unconvinced about losing end breaks. "I don't see the benefit [of losing end breaks] unless you are putting in promos. ABC1 is such a small portion, I just see it as an offering for us to advertise with them, as it will drive up centre breaks across the network. I can't see other stations going that way – although maybe smaller ones will in order to entice us to spend with them."
Steve Hobbs, media director at Carat, believes that ABC1 is further ahead of the game than most: "If you believe that PVRs will take off, which I do, when people are watching programmes they have recorded they won't watch end breaks. So they have no value in that type of environment."
Not anticipating an immediate wide-scale network ditching of end breaks, Hobbs adds: "A mix is more likely but, in the longer run, I suspect there won't be breaks at the ends of programmes."
P&G's Balderson agrees: "I don't think no end breaks is unsuited [to mainstream] but, given the volume of demand, I think certainly for the foreseeable future you're going to get a mix of end breaks and centre breaks on most stations."
Lack of options?
Steve McDonnell, director at MediaCom, feels that ABC1's move to ditch end breaks was not solely motivated by a need to distinguish itself from the crowd.
"In my opinion, ABC1 had no alternative. It is starting mid year, all the deals have been done. There is very little money floating around that it can take. To fill up inventory it would have to lower its prices, once it has lowered its prices. It will really struggle to get them back up again so by restricting minuteage that will help for the future."
Describing McDonnnell's comments as "absolute rubbish", Branded TV's Bailey argues: "Launching a new channel into the UK market isn't something we do lightly – we've taken our time.
"The strategy behind ad breaks is just one piece behind that big plan. There's no question that we left things too late or that we had no alternative."
Bailey adds: "In an increasingly competitive environment a broadcaster that brings something slightly different to the party makes you stand and that's what we believe we have done."
Like Bailey, MPG's Martin agrees that the onslaught of multichannel and a diversified market has left advertisers wanting more than just the standard 30-second slot.
"It's great that we buy into programming such as Desperate Housewives and Champions' League – but maybe that's not giving much of an edge in terms of getting brands out there and now every client is challenging agencies as to what can be done to give their adverts better stand out," he says.
Martin adds: "We need a very strong creative and need to work closely with them. For some of my clients we have to change the creative and look at interactive options and cross sponsorship."
Steve Hobbs, media director Carat, concurs: "I do think we need to work harder to engage with people when they're watching TV, such as advertising funded programming, sponsorship and making the brand fit with the programme, as with, for example, Baileys and Sex And The City."
Hobbs adds that ITV's proposed plans to increase ad minutes would ultimately be counter-productive because, while it may reduce costs of airtime in the short-term, it would give people more reason to flick around during lengthy breaks to the detriment of ITV and the quality of its schedule.
"ITV need to retain its USP of delivering mass coverage, because that is its real opportunity to continue dominating the mass market."
MediaCom's McDonnell is also a firm believer in less is more.
"What advertisers want is for ads to stand out. We don't want more to be sold off to other people. If ITV want more impact they need to sort out daytime and make it work. Advertisers don't just want high rating spots all the time. They want programmes that will increase their level of coverage."
An increase in clutter, Martin feels, would have detrimental effect on brands. "They won't be as distinctive or as classy if minutes are increased for programmes such as Champions' League – clients like Mercedes won't like being associated with Unilever brands such as Persil and Surf. In that respect, it could go the way of satellite in that, yes, it is seen as niche and low cost, but you are in a break with chairlifts and similar brands... it's not a great standout."
Describing ITV's plans as "a short term shot in the arm," Jean Paul Edwards, head of media futures at Manning Gottlieb OMD, says: "Consumers intuitively know about ad breaks and are pretty good at getting back to the sofa in time. The only direction is making ad breaks less cluttered.
"I would rather appear in a break with one or two ads, not 10, but we can only pay more once this has shown itself to be more valuable – which takes time."
An ITV spokesman says: "Ofcom has decided to review the rules on the amount and scheduling of advertising in the spring.
"Our view is that these rules need updating as we move into the fully digital world and we look forward to engaging in Ofcom's review process."
Chris Hayward, head of TV at ZenithOptimedia, believes any relaxation in rules should be done in such a way as not to harm viewers' experience.
“It needs to be put into context, with the increasing penetration of multi-channel TV we need to get some balance.”
While nobody suggests the 30- second slot is by any means dead, agencies agree that broadcasters need to continually innovate to keep up with the changes in technology.
MG OMD's Edwards sums up. "Tinkering with the 30-sec slot is one thing, but we need to look at the more fundamental changes in the relationships with advertisers and consumers and the way sponsorship and interactivity is used," he says, adding: "We don't know enough about how new technology is working. Modernising our communications patterns is vitally important."