Viacom To Cut Back On Primetime TV Ads Starting In October (Exclusive)

Can a TV network wring more value from TV commercials if it runs fewer of them? Viacom is about to find out.

The company, which owns MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central and has suffered significant ratings declines in recent months, will in October begin to run fewer minutes of commercials in primetime on all of its networks, according to an executive familiar with the situation. Where Viacom has been running between 17 and 18 minutes of ads per hour, it will now try to run between 14 and 15 minutes, the executive said. Should the effort produce positive results, Viacom could consider expanding it to other times of the day.

Viewers may love the idea of having to watch fewer commercials, but Viacom’s move is not entirely altruistic. The company owes what is known in the business as “make goods,” or additional commercial inventory given to advertisers when programming fails to meet ratings levels previously guaranteed in pricing negotiations.

Viacom will award its biggest advertisers more ads that appear in the first slot of a commercial break, according to the executive, as well as promotions that are woven more closely into programming, such as a “billboard” that tells viewers directly that a show is sponsored by a particular marketer. Running fewer ads will let Viacom “de-clutter” its schedule in terms of the number of commercials shown and also satisfy what it owes individual advertisers, the executive said.

Speaking at an investor conference Friday, Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman alluded to the effort, suggesting the policy might result in fewer ads, but that the remaining commercials would be priced higher.

On Madison Avenue, Viacom has over the years developed a reputation as an “overstuffer” of commercial breaks – running ads multiple times to generate a required number of viewer impressions despite fluctuations in viewership.

In 2010, for example, the company’s Spike network broke up reruns of the HBO comedy “Entourage” into small segments so that the show could accommodate commercial breaks that lasted as long as eight to ten minutes. In 2012, Viacom’s TV Land ran so many commercials in a three-hour time period that it only had room for five episodes of sitcoms, rather than the six that might normally fill a schedule of that length.

“We think it’s gotten worse,” said one media-buying executive familiar with the Viacom networks’ advertising policies, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to upset discussions with the media company. “We clocked an eight-minute break” during a recent weekend.

Viacom isn’t the only company to brandish the technique, which has become more widely adopted as many TV networks grappled with an exodus of viewers to streaming video and mobile devices. In recent months, TV outlets owned by A+E Networks and AMC Networks have also increased commercial loads, according to research from Todd Juenger, a media-industry analyst with Bernstein Research.

In the second quarter of 2015, Juenger found ad loads at Viacom’s BET, MTV and VH1 had increased 15% and 11% and 11%, respectively; ad loads at A+E’s FYI and History were up 11%; and ad loads at AMC and WE rose 12% and 7%. In comparison, ad loads at Time Warner’s TBS were relatively unchanged during the period and fell 1% at Discovery Communications’ Discovery Channel.

Ad clutter has been on the rise at both cable and broadcast for years. In 2009, for example, broadcast networks on average ran 13 minutes and 25 seconds of commercials per hour, according to data from Nielsen. In 2014, that average had risen to 14 minutes and 36 seconds. Cable networks in 2009 ran an average of 14 minutes and 27 seconds of ads per hour, Nielsen found. In 2014, that average had increased to 15 minutes and 49 seconds.

If those numbers still hold, Viacom’s new primetime ad breaks would be in line with the rest of the industry’s.

More TV

  • Alfonso Cuaron71st Annual Writers Guild Awards,

    Alfonso Cuarón on Academy's 'Inevitable' Reversal on Televised Oscar Categories

    Alfonso Cuarón isn’t exactly surprised that the Academy reversed its decision and will now air all the Oscar categories during the live show on Sunday. Feb. 24. Calling the decision “inevitable,”Cuarón tells Variety that he thinks the Academy should take things even further. “Let’s stop calling them technical categories!” he told Variety on Sunday night [...]

  • Desus Nice The Kid Mero

    TV Shows to Watch the Week of Feb. 18, 2019: Academy Awards, 'Desus & Mero'

    Welcome back to Tune In: our weekly newsletter offering a guide to the best of the week’s TV. Each week, Variety’s TV team combs through the week’s schedule, selecting our picks of what to watch and when/how to watch them. This week, the Academy Awards air and Desus & Mero make their debut on Showtime. [...]

  • WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01

    BBC Takes Stake in New Company Set Up by ‘Luther,’ ‘Bodyguard’ Exec

    BBC Studios has taken a minority stake in Firebird Pictures, the new drama indie being set up by BBC execs Elizabeth Kilgarriff and Craig Holleworth. Kilgarriff’s credits include “Luther,” “Poldark,” “McMafia” and upcoming Richard Gere-starrer “MotherFatherSon.” She commissioned breakout drama hit “Bodyguard.” Holleworth will be the new company’s COO, having run business and operations for [...]

  • Punisher Jessica Jones

    Marvel's 'The Punisher,' 'Jessica Jones' Canceled at Netflix

    The last of Netflix’s Marvel shows are officially ending. “The Punisher” has been canceled after its second season, and the upcoming third season of “Jessica Jones” will be its last, Netflix confirmed on Monday. The announcement comes after Netflix gave the ax to its other Marvel series: “Daredevil,” “Iron First,” and “Luke Cage.” “Marvel’s ‘The Punisher’ will [...]

  • SND Boards Comedy Series 'Family Shake'

    SND Boards Comedy Series 'Family Shake' With 'Desperate Parents' Producer

    SND, the commercial arm of the French TV network M6, has acquired worldwide distribution rights to “Family Shake,” a comedy series written by Baya Kasmi and Michel Leclerc. SND is the latest vertically integrated French film group to start handling live-action series, following TF1 Studio, Studiocanal and Gaumont, among others. Produced by Gaëlle Cholet at [...]

  • 'Super Shiro' Anime Series Inspired by

    'Super Shiro' Anime Series Inspired by 'Crayon Shin-chan'

    The enduringly popular Japanese cartoon franchise “Crayon Shin-chan” has inspired a new animated TV series, “Super Shiro.” “Crayon Shin-chan” has been on air since 1992 and inspired 26 feature films. “Super Shiro” is a fast-paced chase series, for kids, based on original IP by Yoshito Usui and scripted by on Kimiko Ueno.  The series is [...]

  • Us Television Writers and Producers Maria

    ‘Mad Men’s’ Andre, Maria Jacquemetton Set for Series Mania’s UGC Writers Campus

    MADRID — André and Maria Jacquemetton, the Emmy and WGA Award-winning writer-producers of AMC’s “Mad Men” and consulting producers on Amazon Studios’ “The Romanoffs,” will serve as Guests of Honor at Series Mania’s UGC Writers Campus, a workshop whose participants include Denmark’s Christina Miller-Harris and Israel’s Noy Carmel. The Jacquemettons will deliver a masterclass and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content