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Quantum of Advertising on Freeview

July 2015

This article presents the results of measuring the quantity of advertising on Freeview (New Zealand). I actually don't watch a lot of TV but often have the TV going, without sound, as virtual wallpaper. It is the equivalent of the lounge "aquarium" if you like. I have become amazed and stunned at the number of times I would randomly turn on the TV, and be in an ad-break. A casual estimate was for me to alight on ads for 80% of occasions the telly was switched on, or I looked up from reading, or did a bit of channel surfing at random. In the spirit of "you don't know until you measure", I have looked at the amount of advertising on the primary Freeview nationwide channels. Regional and niche services are not considered.

What counts as advertising?

The advertising and marketing industry is huge. The NZ Advertising Standards Authority estimates an advertising market turnover of 2400 million dollars in 2014. This industry employs armies of talented people to work out how best to sell you stuff and to constantly invent new ways to get that message through, in order to try and transfer money from your wallet into the wallets of their clients. For TV, and especially free-to-air TV, the methods include the so-called 'infomercials' which are protracted ads for a product, sometimes running in blocks for hours at a time. There are the multiple ads in multiple breaks throughout your favourite programmes. There are product demonstrations; sometimes called 'advertorials', within a programme. Then, there are more subtle methods such as banners and tickers at the start and end of programmes, sponsorship spots and product placements. Finally, there are entire channels dedicated to shopping.

What is included in this test?

Results include:

The above two definitions include ads for the TV stations themselves, which despite protestations from the TV industry that these are promotions; not advertisements, any thesaurus will show that these terms are synonymous and running a TV channel is very definitely still just a business like every other. Some ads are for charities and there also are government campaigns such as 'stop smoking', but these are included nevertheless. What is not captured here are the ad banners, sponsorship captions, product placements.

The test is in two parts. The first part shows all the scheduled ads -infomercials and 'home shopping'.

Part One: Scheduled Ads

Below is a graphic showing all scheduled ads during a weekday for all the Freeview channels that list scheduled advertising. Orange blocks are ads; the 1 hour blocks start and end at midnight.

Sched ads weekday graphic

As you can see, it would be hard to avoid advertising at all between midnight and 6am, and the hours of 10am to midday are fairly thick with ads. During the week, 16% of the day is scheduled advertising on TV1, for TV2 it is 12.5%, TV3 has 29.2%, TV4 42.4% and Prime 43.1%. None of the other channels have infomercials.

Next are separate graphics for infomercials on Saturdays and Sundays.

Sched ads Saturday graphic

Sched ads Sunday graphic

On Saturdays, 25% of the day on both TV1 and TV3 are infomercials. On TV4, almost half the day (47.2%) is infomercials and Prime is similar at 45.8%. Sundays are interesting. A long time ago, no TV advertising was allowed on Sundays. The broadcasters successfully lobbied the government and the broadcasting act was subsequently amended to allow ads on Sundays from noon only. Later came more lobbying and the government now only prohibits TV advertising between 6am and midday on Sundays. Even the shopping channels have to stop advertising between 6am and midday, although yet another exception applies to the TVSN channel because it originates outside New Zealand. Shhh, nobody tell the advertising standards authority that both TV1+1 and TV4+1 are breaking the no-ad period on Sunday mornings.

That deals with the scheduled ad periods. Remember, on the graphics above, only the green areas are available for real programmes. The next part of the exercise measures how much of that remaining available time is given to advertising.

Part Two: In programme Ads

Recordings were made of various channels at different times and the length of ad breaks was measured. This took a bit of time despite being able to play back at twice normal speed and skip through segments. Because I needed to retain the will to live, there is no attempt to measure the entire day on each channel. Just a few segments were checked, however the results turn out to be quite consistent, so the margin of error overall is small on the consolidated figures. Below are time-line style graphics for each recorded part along with some summary statistics for each.

These graphics are an accurately scaled time-line for the channel and period shown. The time is along the bottom; the green parts are programmes and the red bits are complete ad breaks. Ad breaks are consecutively numbered. Some breaks are really short -perhaps 15 seconds, and are hard to see in the graphics.

TV1am TV1 from 6am to 10am on Thursday May 14. Within the 4 hour block, there are two complete programmes; "Breakfast" and "Good Morning" and a total of 123 ads, within 21 separate breaks. Ads include 17 for the station itself and also 4 product demonstrations within the "Good morning" programme.
  • Total ads duration: 1 hour 8 mins
  • Percent ad time (of total period): 28.2%
  • Ad time as % of nett total programme time: 39.3%
  • Programme nett run-times: "Breakfast" 2hr 15min 26secs, "Good morning" 36min 15secs
  • Median ad break: 4mins
  • Max ad break: 5mins
  • Averaged ad minutes per hour: 16.9
Sometimes the gaps between ad breaks are amazingly short. Between ad breaks 4 and 5 above, there is only 3 minutes,7 seconds of programme. Between breaks 15 & 16 there is only 34 seconds of programme. Between #16 & #17, we got 56 seconds of programme.
TV3am Another morning segment; this time TV3 from 6am to 9am on Monday May 18. In this 3 hour block, there is only one programme; "Paul Henry" plus a total of 122 ads, within 12 separate breaks. Ads include 17 for the station itself.
  • Total ads duration: 46 mins
  • Percent ad time (of total period): 25.5%
  • Ad time as % of nett total programme time: 34.2%
  • Programme nett run-time: 2hr 14min
  • Median ad break: 3mins 48secs
  • Max ad break: 3mins 57secs
  • Averaged ad minutes per hour: 15.3
The shortest programme segment here falls between ad breaks 7 & 8 and is 3mins 28secs long.
TV2pm In this evening 5 hour segment, TV2 broadcasts 8 programmes and 229 ads within 32 ad breaks. The last programme here; "Resurrection" is not complete at the end of the recording.
  • Total ads duration: 1hr 27mins 37secs.
  • Percent ad time (of total period): 29%
  • Ad time as % of nett total programme time: 41.3%
  • Programme total nett run-time: 3hrs 32mins 19secs
  • Median ad break: 3 mins10 secs
  • Max ad break: 4mins 40secs.
  • Averaged ad minutes per hour: 17.5
As with previous recordings, some of the spaces between ad breaks are shorter than the ad breaks. In "Big Bang Theory", the space between breaks 18 and 19 is only 3mins 53secs long. The last segment of the same programme is equally short.
The run-times (excl ads) for each complete programme are: Neighbours: 21min 12secs, Shortland St: 22min 33secs, MKR: 55min 27secs, BigBang Theory: 19min 9secs, Two broke girls: 20min 23secs, Once upon a time: 39mins 13 secs.
TV4pm This 4 hour evening recording on TV4 included 4 complete programmes, 2 partially complete programmes, plus 166 ads over 20 ad breaks.
  • Total ads duration: 1hr 4mins 19secs.
  • Percent ad time (of total period): 26.8%
  • Ad time as % of nett total programme time: 36.6%
  • Programme total nett run-time: 2hrs 55mins 41secs
  • Median ad break: 3 mins 48 secs
  • Max ad break: 4mins 20secs.
  • Averaged ad minutes per hour: 16.1
Prime_pm In this 3 hour snapshot, Prime showed 121 ads in 19 breaks. There were only 3 complete programmes; "Storage Wars", "Heir we go again" and "CSI Cyber". "Elementary" was part way through at the recording end. Also the very start of the recording captured a couple of minutes of a programme with Stephen Fry. The very short green parts on the graphic prior to ad break #5, between breaks #8 and #9 and between breaks #13 and #14 are micro news spots, which have been counted as programme material.
  • Total ads duration: 50 mins.
  • Percent ad time (of total period): 27.8%
  • Ad time as % of nett total programme time: 38.3%
  • Programme total nett run-time: 2hrs 10 mins
  • Median ad break: 3 mins 48 secs
  • Max ad break: 4mins 31secs.
  • Averaged ad minutes per hour: 16.6
Choice A 5 hour snapshot of Choice was taken on 27 May. In this, there are 7 programmes and 152 ads within 25 breaks.
  • Total ads duration: 1 hr 19 mins.
  • Percent ad time (of total period): 26.3%
  • Ad time as % of nett total programme time: 35.6%
  • Programme total nett run-time: 3hrs 41 mins
  • Median ad break: 3 mins 41 secs
  • Max ad break: 4mins 41 secs.
  • Averaged ad minutes per hour: 15.8
Maori During this 5 hour recording there are 9 programmes and 28 ad breaks.
  • Total ads duration: 44 mins 40 secs.
  • Percent ad time (of total period): 14.9%
  • Ad time as % of nett total programme time: 17.5%
  • Programme total nett run-time: 4hrs 15 mins 20secs
  • Median ad break: 1 mins 35 secs
  • Max ad break: 2mins 50 secs.
  • Averaged ad minutes per hour: 8.9
The length of ad breaks here is relatively short; many of the ads are for forthcoming programmes. However, programmes are interrupted often with the median programme segment only 8 minutes 52 seconds long. The shortest programme segment was 3 minutes 41 seconds.
TV1pm TV1 played 5 programmes within this 4 hour recording. The last programme; "Best bits" had only just commenced by the end of the recording. Within this space, there are 16 ad breaks.
  • Total ads duration: 1 hour 1 minute.
  • Percent ad time (of total period): 25.5%
  • Ad time as % of nett total programme time: 34.2%
  • Programme total nett run-time: 2hrs 59 mins.
  • Median ad break: 4 mins 01 secs
  • Max ad break: 4mins 43 secs.
  • Averaged ad minutes per hour: 15.3
The run-times (excluding ads) for each complete programme are: News: 44min 03secs, Seven Sharp: 23min 05secs, Britain's got talent: 55min 04secs, Our Zoo: 51min 47secs.
TV3pm In this recording there are only 4 programmes, plus a short news update. Over the four hours there are 18 ad breaks.
  • Total ads duration: 1 hour and 6 seconds.
  • Percent ad time (of total period): 25.0%
  • Ad time as % of nett total programme time: 33.4%
  • Programme total nett run-time: 2hrs 59 mins 56 secs.
  • Median ad break: 3 mins 32 secs
  • Max ad break: 4mins 21 secs.
  • Averaged ad minutes per hour: 15.0
The programme net run-times are: News: 43 mins 45 secs, Campbell Live: 23 mins 34 secs, X factor: 1 hr 29 mins 55 secs. The Graham Norton show was incomplete at the end of the recording. One segment of Campbell Live is only 3 minutes 2 seconds long and is sandwiched between ad breaks nearly 4 minutes in length each.

Summarising all the recordings, we find that:

Again, on average, every hour is 26.4% advertising, leaving some 73.6% for programme content. However, relative to the actual programme content, advertising time becomes 36% .

One ex-colleague doesn't talk about ad-breaks; she mentions programme breaks, as in "That was a short programme break". This is frustration arising from too many closely spaced ad-breaks interrupting one's viewing pleasure. The summary statistics for the above recordings show that the median programme break is 7 minutes 44 seconds long, but the shortest was only 26 seconds. Stations clearly don't want you to be away from advertising too long. If you happened to turn on the TV in an actual programme period, you have an even chance of being less than 3 minutes 52 seconds from the next ad break.

The next section adds up the infomercial time and the in-programme ads to give a series of pie charts.

Part Three: The overall picture

The following are a series of pie charts, showing proportions of infomercial time, in-programme advertising and actual programme content in a complete day.

These are made by first taking the total scheduled infomercial time for each of the monitored channels, subtracting that from 24 to get remaining time. Then we calculate ad percentage in that remaining time for each channel using the ad minutes per hour obtained from the recordings. The remainder is actual programme content. Because we have not measured every single hour in a day, there is some averaging, however, apart from the Maori channel, ad-minutes per hour across channels and across time-of-day are remarkably consistent, so any error will be small.

On the pie charts, blue is infomercial time, red is the in-programme ads and green is programme content. Because the quantity of infomercial time changes in the weekends, there are three pies per channel, except for Choice TV and Maori TV; neither of which carry infomercials.

pie charts

If you really like ads, stick to either TV4 or Prime on a Saturday. To limit your exposure, watch Choice, or Maori or even TV2 on Sundays. You also have the option of all the niche and regional services not considered in this document. I have not seen any ads on the 'Parliament' service, for example.

What are the odds?

As mentioned at the beginning, the impetus for this exercise was to try and calculate the odds of being in an advertisement when the TV is first switched on at a random time or when surfing between channels, or even just looking up from another task to see 'what's on'. If one takes entire 24 hour periods on any individual channel, then the probability over a large number of trials will be simply the proportion of total ad time. This is how that works out for each channel:

Channel Weekday Saturday Sunday

The situation becomes a more complex matter when one wants to find the probability of landing on an advertisement at a random time for any channel at random. Now there are overlapping events and things exceed my ability at probability theory very quickly. However, let's work through a couple of scenarios.

The first one; fairly easy, is to find the probability of coming in to an ad when you turn on the TV between 4am and 5am on a weekday. You don't know which channel the TV is going to start on, but say you have 14 possible channels. These are TV1,TV2,TV3,TV4, the plus ones, Prime, Choice, Maori, Shopping channel, TVSN and YesShop.

Looking at the very first part of this document, the first chart shows weekday scheduled ads (infomercials) for all channels that have them. Only Choice and Maori are not shown here. Between 4am and 5am, 10 of the 14 channels are showing infomercials, so if you landed on any of them the probability of getting an ad is 100%. But considering all 14 channels are possible, we add up individual probabilities: Those channels not in infomercials at that time are TV2, TV2+1, Choice, Maori. TV2 has 25.5% ads (outside infomercial periods), TV2+1 is the same, Choice is 26.3% and Maori is 15% probability. So the total probability of hitting an ad on any of the 14 channels in that period is 71.4% + 1.82% + 1.82% + 1.88% + 1.07% which totals 78%.

The generally identical principle applies at any time of day, but considering the overlapping times of ads across all the channels, the calculation becomes complex. It is not even a case, as has been suggested of being virtually 50:50 odds due to there being more or less 5 ad breaks and 5 programme breaks in any hour. On average, programme breaks are longer, but at times, the opposite can be true. For odds of hitting an ad on any one channel, I might be tempted to simplify the matter down to being: median ad period/(median ad + median programme segment). and that could approximate the answer . The result of that is odds of exactly 33% or 1 chance in 3 by taking median times across all the recorded segments.

Random test

To try and validate the probabilities, I generated a series of 50 random numbers from 0 to 180 and mapped them to one minute time slices within the period 7pm to 10pm. There were 6 recordings covering this period. Then, each recording was inspected to see if the random time fell within an ad break. The result is shown within the following table:

random result table

Note the table has been sorted by time and was not generated in this order. As you might have intuited, the odds of hitting an ad break at random relate to both the frequency of breaks and their period. The overall odds of hitting an ad break on any of these 6 channels at random is 26%, which is very close to the averaged advertising time per hour (not including infomercial periods.) The right column of the table adds the hits for every random time across the six channels. The hot spots can be seen by higher counts. At most up to four channels were showing commercials simultaneously.

In summary

Results of this exercise probably aren't a surprise to most people. You knew there was a lot of advertising on Freeview and you knew the frequency of ad breaks was intrusive. This attempts to bring some objectivity to the thinking. For me, the results show my original subjective estimates were far too high and clearly illustrates the usefulness of measuring things.

You also might imagine I am anti-advertising. Well, I do find it annoying, but understand why it is necessary. Having to put up with ads is the price we pay for stuff. The ad people are absolutely convinced of the effectiveness of TV advertising. Personally, I cannot think of one thing that I ever bought from seeing it in a TV ad. Perhaps another subjective fail? In N.Z, ads pay for over 90% of TV operational costs. Your taxes only pay a small amount. Tax money is given to 'NZ On Air' and most of that is given to producers of programmes and not directly to the TV stations. The question I suppose is why it costs so much to run a TV station? Someone did ask me this and it went something along the lines of 'how much can it be for someone to receive the usb sticks, copy them to the pc and press play at the right moment...' But we are moving off topic here...

Many people avoid ads by recording their favourite programmes then skipping ads. Certainly it is possible, but I think the simple TV in the corner will be with us a while yet, at least for a large segment of viewers, who just want to turn on the telly and not worry about handling multiple devices, booting up computers, connecting them to on-line services and all the palaver that goes with that. The advertising models might have to change once fully integrated TV's with internet-enabled features are more widespread.


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