Public Release: 

To Zap Or Not To Zap: Study Shows Advertisers Can Schedule Commercials To Battle Channel Surfing

Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences

LINTHICUM, MD, October 8 - A study of TV viewers' channel switching habits suggests that advertisers should schedule their commercials for the middle of programs and improve their media plans for preventing viewers from being overexposed to the same commercials. It also suggests that TV stations keep their lengthier breaks away from the beginning and end of shows. The study appears in a journal published by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMSR).

The study examines the times when TV viewers are likely to switch channels during commercials. It identifies a number of patterns and observations for advertisers and television stations.

Flock Away From The Top

Among the factors studied are household category purchase history, how often an ad is repeated, whether the commercials is aired during a "pod" - or group of ads - at the hour/half-hour mark, and the length and content of the commercial. "Our results ... suggest that all time slots within a program are not the same," says the study. "There is a significantly higher likelihood of commercial zapping during pods around the hour/half-hour mark compared with other times during the program."

As a result, the authors suggest that advertisers try to avoid being slotted into these times or that they negotiate a rate reduction for these times. They recommend that prices for advertising pods located around the hour/half-hour marks should be between 5% and 33% lower than those in the remaining portion of the program.

They also suggest that networks reconfigure ad clusters so that they are located 10 and 20 minutes into each half-hour segment. Their recommendation is practiced in some countries, for example, New Zealand, and has been suggested in other studies as well.

Additional Results

The study found that the optimal number of previous exposures beyond which zapping increases is about 14 exposures for the segment of households that are most "zap-prone."

It also confirms that purchase history in the product category strengthens the case for segmenting markets more precisely on the basis of consumer attitudes and behavior. The presence of a brand differentiating message in a commercial - one that makes an explicit claim that only the advertised brand has an important feature - causes a small but statistically significant decrease in zapping probability.

Interestingly, the time of day during which a commercial is aired and household demographics were not found to be related to a household's propensity to zap an ad.


The study was based on data from a scanner panel of 1,712 households made available by NPD/Nielsen. The dataset contained product purchase and commercial viewing information in two product categories, spaghetti sauce and glass cleaners, for a two-year period from December 31, 1989 to December 31, 1991. The study, "To Zap or Not to Zap: A Study of the Determinants of Channel Switching During Commercials" was written by Dr. S. Siddarth, Anderson School at UCLA, and Dr. Amitava Chattopadhyay, University of British Columbia. It appears in the current edition of Marketing Science, a publication of INFORMS.


The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMSR) is an international scientific society with 12,000 members, including Nobel Prize laureates, dedicated to applying scientific methods to help improve decision-making, management, and operations. Members of INFORMS work primarily in business, government, and academia. They are represented in fields as diverse as airlines, health care, law enforcement, the military, the stock market, and telecommunications.


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