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Media Zone: Where Did All the Minutes Go?

1 Apr, 2009 By: Dick Wechsler Response

At the end of 2008, with the economy in a freefall, we anticipated a media-buying bonanza in 2009. It stood to reason. January is always the best time of the year for media, anyway. And with major banks folding, American auto companies on the verge of bankruptcy, and just about every industry cutting back on advertising, it seemed clear that the networks would be dumping tons of media at rock-bottom prices. However, an odd thing happened that none of us were expecting.

 Dick Wechsler
Dick Wechsler

From Christmas week through New Year's week, we did realize the opportunity for significant media scale and efficiency that everyone was expecting. Then, suddenly, the market began to tighten. By tighten, I mean that while a significant volume of media was available at favorable rates, there was a distinct limit to the efficient scale that could be achieved for any one campaign.

Since no factor affects DRTV more than the amount of inventory available, we immediately did a study comparing available commercial minutes in January 2009 versus January 2008. Bingo! We discovered that the amount of commercial minutes available on large, national cable networks was down 20 percent year over year.


In real numbers, that means that while 180,230 commercial minutes ran in January 2008, only 144,972 ran in 2009, a deficit of 35,258 minutes. (For the purposes of this analysis, we included public-service announcements [PSAs] and network promotions in our definition of a "commercial break," and incorporated all lengths — from 10 seconds to five minutes).

So, where did all the media go? Twenty percent is a huge drop in commercial inventory. Even more surprising is the extent to which this contraction spread throughout the media universe. Sixty-five of the 71 networks analyzed showed a contraction between 8.2 percent and 83.3 percent. Only five networks showed an increase in commercial minutes.

The Israeli-Gaza conflict, the economy and the inauguration explain some of this reduction in commercial minutes, since news networks represent a larger-than-average share of two-minute DRTV inventory. Breaking news always results in extended coverage and fewer commercial breaks. Commercial inventory on Fox News was off 26 percent, CNN was down 24 percent and MSNBC had 20 percent less inventory than in 2008. Given the importance of these three networks, we began to understand the firmer-than-expected market that presented itself following New Year's.

What we didn't expect was the degree to which two-minute inventory contracted on the major cable networks. Forty-five percent fewer two-minute spots were detected on major cable networks in 2009 than in 2008. Thirty-second units dropped 55 percent year over year, down from 397,743 in 2008 to 197,576 in 2009. One-minute spots were the biggest losers. Detected spots plummeted 62 percent to 25,213.

Hollywood advertising was up 18 percent in January 2009. The 2,463 additional film trailers that ran in January 2009 vs. January 2008 did little to offset the loss in available commercial minutes, however.

Eddie Wilders, research director at Lockard & Wechsler, points out that most of the reduction in available commercial minutes fell within movies, news and live sports programming, not in sitcoms or drama series.

The big questions, though, are where the lost time went, and whether the trend is likely to continue throughout the year. If it does, DRTV planners and buyers will have to come up with creative strategies to meet the industry's insatiable appetite for efficient inventory.

Dick Wechsler is president and CEO of Lockard & Wechsler Direct in Irvington, N.Y. He can be reached via E-mail at

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