Should ad durations on TV shows be halved

Business Standard , March 28, 2012

By Pradeep S Mehta

“On average, 35 per cent of prime time (7 p m to 11 p m) of news roadcasts is taken away by advertisements, against the hourly limit of 20 per cent prescribed in the regulations”

In India, self-regulation is always at a premium, unless accompanied by a danda. This is my considered experience having been a scholar-activist for nearly 30 years.

The flood of advertising beyond a reasonable proportion, whether in the electronic medium or the print medium, has been debated for aeons without a fair resolution. In the print medium, the unofficial norm has been 60 per cent news and 40 per cent advertising, but often the ratio goes berserk. Now that TV has become both a source of news and entertainment, the foray of advertisers in this sector has raised the ante of what should be a reasonable amount of advertising with which the consumer can be bombarded. Unlike the print medium, the consumer cannot skip the ads except by hitting the mute button. And in most cases, when one tries and shifts to another similar channel, voilà, more if not the same advertising again, and one waits patiently or does something else. I understand from industry sources that advertisers organise such collusive practice in association with compliant TV channels. Indeed, this should be taken up by the Competition Commission of India.

Moreover, a study on the duration of advertisements carried out in some news channels over the past four years reveals that, on average, 35 per cent of prime time (7 p m to 11 p m) of news broadcasts is taken away by advertisements, against the hourly limit of 20 per cent prescribed in the regulations. The maximum annual average has been found to be as high as 47.4 per cent. This is apart from other types of innovative advertising, like using a part of the screen to carry static or moving captions, picture-in-picture, pop-up ads and so on.

Besides the over-abundance of advertisements in terms of duration, screen coverage and frequency, TV viewers also feel short-changed when the local multi-system operator, too, jumps in the fray with its own advertisements, which is a case of unjust enrichment.

Therefore, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s suo motu effort to regulate this growing and objectionable trend has set the cat among the pigeons. TV broadcasters depend immensely on advertising revenues and are, thus, feeling the heat. From questioning the need for interference in a “market-driven” field, they also allude to a possible increase in their rates for consumers and cite self-regulation as a better alternative in case the regulations are implemented.

Regulations in respect of advertisements on TV are not new — a number of jurisdictions across the world already have these in place. In Australia, an hourly cap on the minutes for ads is further bifurcated into peak hours and the rest. New Zealand, besides the hourly cap, also bans advertisements on Christmas, Good Friday, Easter and Sunday mornings. Canada, in addition to the hourly caps, does not permit these on pay services.

The UK, besides a fixed upper time limit, also lays down that the ads should not prejudice the integrity of the programme. Austria permits controlled time limits to ads but only on news and current affairs programmes. The law in Denmark does not permit advertising interruption breaks during programmes and limits these in blocks between programmes and so on. That the TV advertising field needs regulation for the benefit of consumers or viewers is amply borne out by these examples.

In Philippines, TV advertising is self-regulated by individual broadcasters, which limits advertising to 18 minutes per hour to help promote public interest. For cable TV and other paid segments, the limit is 10 minutes an hour, provided that such advertisements are shown at the start and/or end of the programme. In India, the rampant flouting of existing norms by broadcasters and advertisers does not inspire confidence in self-regulation, which inherently calls for a high degree of discipline, responsibility and accountability.

As far as an increase in rates is concerned, the regulator has argued that with the government setting the ball rolling on digitisation of the cable and satellite industry by December 2014, pay channels would not have to depend as much on advertising revenues as they now do. But who knows, what will happen in the future, unless there is a danda.

The author is secretary general, CUTS International.

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