Despite good rates news, TV uneasy about trend toward short ads

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The good news for television's network advertising sales executives is that this year's increases in unit price for commercial time are holding firm despite continued audience erosion. In fact, the price increases the networks are asking for the coming season are nearly as high as last year, when there was both a national election and the Olympic Games to attract advertisers and viewers alike.

But a question that has the whole advertising industry abuzz is the future of the split-30 commercial, which ABC, CBS, and NBC are now offering on an experimental basis.

The split-30 is simply a 30-second commercial that is divided into two equal parts. It allows a corporate advertiser with a multiple line of products to divide the 30 seconds of advertising time into separate messages for two products, with 15 seconds usually allotted to each.

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Although many retailers like them, advertisers are concerned that 15-second spots may clutter commercial TV even more, disaffecting viewers at a time when audiences are falling off anyway.

Most networks deny they are selling 15-second commercials -- although CBS concedes it is now accepting them but only in conjunction with its ``Newsbreak'' and ``Sportsbreak'' features. ``We're just being realistic and recognizing the needs of the marketplace,'' says Jerome H. Dominus, vice-president of CBS for televison network sales.

It all began with Alberto-Culver, which considers itself a small advertiser when compared with the giants of packaged-goods marketing like Lever Brothers and Procter & Gamble.

Alberto-Culver actively pursues the Puerto Rico market for many of its products. In 1980 and '81, Culver discovered it could double the number of its advertising messages without increasing its overall media costs by cutting in half its traditional 30-second commercials.

Local TV stations were eager to cooperate. The result was that Alberto-Culver was able to combine commercials for grooming aids such as its VO-5 deodorant and shampoo.

This broad-based marketing company also found it was able to get good results when it combined 15-second commercials for its Sugar Twin with commercials of a similar length for its line of grooming products.

The Puerto Rico experience, says Henry Wittemann, Culver's vice-president for advertising services, ``combined with the fact that the cost of network TV advertising has been rising year after year in the United States, made us realize we needed to do the same thing here. Without being able to use the so-called split-30s, some of our products would simply have been forced out of television.''

So Alberto-Culver petitioned the three networks to accept its split 30-second commercials. Initially the networks declined. Then in 1983 after legal skirmishes involving CBS, one by one the networks acquiesced.

Although it has been accepting the split-30s for more than a year on an experimental basis, NBC is studying the whole question as to the future of the split-30s.

Many makers and marketers of multiproduct lines have already benefited from Alberto-Culver's precedent. Current users of the split-30 commercial on network television include Nabisco for its varied line of crackers and cookies and American Home Products for its Chef Ravioli, Brach candy, and Woolite brands.

Jeff Tolvin, ABC's director of business information, indicated, however, that overall demand for split-30s has not been great since they were first offered last season. Media specialists who follow the industry estimate that overall sales of the split-30s during this pre-season period are running about 5 percent of the total available at the three networks.

The 30-second commercial first made its appearance a decade ago as what was then called the ``piggybacks,'' or two 30s linked in much the same fashion as today's split-30s. Marcella Rosen, senior vice-president for media buying at N. W. Ayer, recently warned broadcasters that the switch from 30s to 15s might be ``destroying the best advertising medium we ever had.''

But at CBS, Mr. Dominus gives a cautiously optimistic view of the new unit. ``Split-30s are in an early stage of advertiser acceptance. They're still only lightly utilized but the demand for them is growing.''

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