Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cursed audience ratings

Several stories in the news today about audience ratings. And an interesting observation from a media reporter after speaking to a group of college students. Look, I know you may think ratings don't really matter to YOU. Well, yes, they do. They determine what shows get put on the TV and which ones get axed. They determine which shows and which stations get to stay around and which ones go down the toilet. Which formats prosper on the radio and which ones go the way of Big Band. Even which products stay on the shelves or which businesses get to continue making stuff.

Ratings for radio and TV are currency. It is how media is bought and sold. And that impacts you in many, many fundamental ways.

So when WSVN-TV in Miami threatens to sue Nielsen, you need to know. The reason for the lawsuit? Because their audience ratings plunged when Nielsen began using a new-technology meter to measure TV viewing. Turth is, it is more accurate than the old meter and diary-measurement previously employed. More accurate is bad? No, it's not. Accuracy is a good thing for everybody. And when a TV or radio station sues a ratings company, claiming their product is flawed, it sends a bad message to potential advertisers. That is especially a bad thing with the accountability, accurate measurement, and pay-for-performance offered by the Internet.

Here's another one, from the web site:

Early in 2009, TiVo announced the further development and expansion of their Stop//Watch Ratings service. Because hard wired TiVo television sets track second by second TV viewing back to TiVo headquarters, we now have a means of instantaneous audience feedback. The implications of this are either very cool or very frightening….depending upon your perspective.

Were you Tivo users aware that your viewing habits were continually being uploaded back to the home office? And that with that data, TV programmers can see tiny slices of peoples' viewing habits. Will they soon eliminate any content that consistently causes a sizeable number of people to tune away or fast-forward? Is that a good or bad thing? As the article says:

Boring programming elements can be avoided, initial program hooks can be measured, or the players in a local newscast can be given an electronic “approval rating”. Joe the sports guys goes, and RoxAnne the weather girl is a keeper. All based on the second by second audience data provided by TiVo.

Of course, advertisers may find that too many people skip their commercials and they are not worth nearly the money the stations and networks are charging. So they either make stations/networks run more spots to make up the difference, or they take their business to an entirely different medium. TV can't stand much of that! It is getting tough enough already for them to make a living. Have you noticed how sparse live bodies are getting on many news sets these days? That is only the beginning!

Finally, there is a column in Broadcasting and Cable magazine by its new editor-in-chief, Ben Grossman. He writes about how he was recently scared to death:

I went back to my old business school, UCLA's Anderson School of Management, as a guest lecturer in an M.B.A. class. I was talking about how the current television model has been methodically picked apart in recent years by the technologically induced shift in viewing habits.

And those M.B.A.s put the fear of God into me by hammering home just how much faster we need to change our ways, or more to the point, our models.

When I took them through the current model of network television, viewing habits and advertising, I felt like I was explaining why New Coke was a great product.

This was a group of younger, probably somewhat well-off, educated men and women with zero investment in the old ways of doing things. They had become happily accustomed to getting the milk for free, and didn't see that genie going back in the bottle.

There were actually very few cord-cutters, but nearly all had watched a show on Hulu in the last month. And when I asked how many of them would be willing to pay even a little bit if the free tap got turned off tomorrow—you could hear crickets.

To quote Astro, that great Jetsons sage: Ruh-roh.

This is a group that advertisers dearly want to reach, but one that dares marketers to come find them. They want a free, on-demand world and they don't understand why they haven't gotten it yet. They can't figure out why television and the Internet haven't met in one box yet, and they don't care who gets it right so long as someone does, and soon. They don't know a CBS show from an ABC show, and they don't care.

Is this a representative sample of TV viewers. Of course not. But if you think these guys are that much different from the typical TV user, you are kidding yourself. You are about to be witness to the greatest upheaval in media in...well...ever. Some of us have to watch and worry because it directly affects our businesses. All of you will be affected, though. Affected profoundly.


Don Keith N4KC

Follow me on Twitter: don_keith

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