A matter of faith? Why broadcasters don’t release minute-by-minute ratings

There was a fair bit of chatter in the market last year after the Great Ratings Drop of 2013, something the broadcasters and their research partner Nielsen put down to a range of factors, including an improving economy, a mild winter and changing media consumption habits. Not surprisingly, the broadcasters remained confident that TV was an effective—and cost-effective—option for advertisers. But, in an age of supposed accountability and measurability, why don’t they release minute-by-minute ratings data to the market to prove it?   

Ratings offer a guide to a show’s popularity that can be used by advertisers, programmers and, as Damian Christie wrote recently, anyone else who’s keen to stick the boot in under the guise of ‘media analysis’. The more popular the show, the more likely that your ad will be seen. But for many viewers, the ad break is a time to go to the toilet, make a cup of tea, check the phone or see what else is on (except perhaps for the Super Bowl, and even then, as the Adobe ad below shows, whether anyone is paying attention to your ad is still something of a guessing game). Increasingly, as PVR’s grow in popularity, the ad break is also a time of fast-forwarding, although TVNZ’s research shows time-shifting is not as common as thought and doesn’t impact on ad effectiveness

MediaWorks group comms manager Rachel Lorimer says the TV Broadcasting Group (made up of TVNZ, Sky, MediaWorks and Nielsen) has certainly looked into what would be needed to generate minute-by-minute ratings for the industry that are statistically significant. But she says the problem is that it would need to increase the existing 600-strong Nielsen panel by around 50 percent, and this comes at a cost millions of dollars of additional investment for set up and on-going management. 

“So, while the networks are not opposed to minute-by-minute ratings, it’s our view the costs are too high for a market the size of New Zealand. Australia is a significantly bigger market, but doesn’t trade on minute-by-minute ratings for similar reasons. Both New Zealand and Australia trade on 15 minute averages. By doing so we provide quality data with an acceptable margin of error, one that is similar to international standards.” 

When we asked to talk to Nielsen about the issue and see if it would be feasible under the existing system, comms manager Kim McFadden said “minute-by-minute data is not available to the industry. All I can reiterate is that the currency is 15 minutes and that’s all we’re able to provide, not sure there’s more we can add.” 

While it may not be provided to the industry, Lorimer says minute-by-minute data is provided to the research teams within the networks. 

“This is used for programming insights [for example, how many people watch the sports news or weather], but is not robust enough to be released more widely within the networks, let alone in the market.” 

TVNZ’s head of sales and marketing Jeremy O’Brien said in a statement that TVNZ is open to the data being made available to the market, but he backs Lorimer’s statements about the cost of implementation to ensure it is valid and robust. And he says new analytics tools allow it to offer clients more proof that the ads are doing as intended. 

“From a practical perspective, the minute-by-minute debate has been somewhat leap-frogged,” he says. “Measurement of campaign return on investment for clients is moving beyond ratings in isolation. The 15 minute average, when combined with the types of action-based response tracking services such as Google analytics provides is redefining return on investment. This I believe is the more important challenge to answer for our advertisers.”

From the perspective of the media agencies, DraftFCB Media’s general manager Derek Lindsay says there are mixed views. 

He says clients deserve to know whether the money they’re spending is being spent appropriately and, if the data showed more people watching at different times within an ad break, that could be valuable. But he says there’s a feeling that having 15 times more data will create more work for already stretched media agencies, for no extra compensation. And he says using this data to prove, for example, ten percent fewer people watch the ads than the show and therefore forcing down the price of TV media even further (internationally, New Zealand is renowned as a cheap market for TV media) will have a significant impact on the revenues of the broadcasters and create issues in the wider industry. 

No measurement system is perfect, and massaging the numbers seems to be part of the game, as the flurry of post-survey press releases from media owners (or agency awards videos) often attest. But one media agency source who did not want to be named says there are some other factors at play here in the decision not to use the minute-by-minute data and it’s aligned to the theme of ‘what your media agency might not be telling you‘ that was written about in Mumbrella last year. 

“The minute-by-minute data makes advertising look really bad. And no-one likes to talk about it because it destabilises the whole commercial model.” 

Some accuse the TV networks of hiding data to protect their revenue stream, but she says the media agencies are also in protection mode. TV media is really easy to buy, and she estimates one relatively junior buyer would be able to manage $20 million a year. If it is integrated, however, that figure would be closer to $3-4 million.  

“They’re protecting their processes, which is what they get paid for. So I don’t think there’s a lot of interest in opening that can of worms. Process builds efficiency and efficiency creates profitability.” 

She has seen minute-by-minute data and says viewership “jumps around significantly” in the ad breaks, with the quality of advertising playing a big role in whether people keep watching the same channel (generally, the ad breaks run at the same time across the networks, which allows for a strategy known as ‘roadblocking’, or running ads across a number of channels simultaneously to capture as many eyeballs as possible).  

“If it’s a shouty retail ad that people don’t like, it means people are more likely change the channel.” And she says the early and often gruesome LTSA (now NZTA) ads were something you really didn’t want to follow.  

The industry isn’t so idealistic as to think the ads are as popular as the content and this is evidenced by the fact that first and last-in-break ad spots cost more to buy than those in the middle. For example, the first in break premium is around 25 percent, she says. But if clients knew about the jumps and the problems with advertising in the middle of the break, she says it would discourage a lot of ad revenue and decrease the broadcasters’ inventory (there’s around 16 commercial minutes in every hour of programming). 

So do clients know all this? Or do they just not care? 

“I don’t think clients care as much as they should. But there’s the old quote about no marketer ever getting fired for doing TV.”

She says there are some savvy clients shifting their money away from TV, or at least trying to use TV differently and focusing on content integration, because “they have realised the way you buy TV isn’t working” and have “started to question its relevance for solving specific problems”.

She believes the process of buying TV media needs to change and follow in the footsteps of digital media, which is “live, accurate and measureable”.

“But until TV becomes a proper digital medium, we’re stuck with the people meters”. 

The creative agencies certainly aren’t innocent parties either, she says. Historically, TV ads have long been the seen as the solution to a range of client problems, TV ads make agencies a fair chunk of their money, and “storytelling creatives” tend to judge themselves on their TV executions. 

“If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” she says. 

To a degree, all advertising is an act of faith. Despite all the institutional knowledge, research and attempts to minimise wastage, there’s no guarantee your ad will have its desired effect and there’s still a degree of mystery and uncertainty in this profession. So we’ll leave the last word to the Ad Contrarian, who postulates that, in the past 50 years, we haven’t really progressed too far in terms of gaining a deeper understanding of how advertising works. 

  • We know that companies that advertise tend to be more successful than those that don’t
  • We know that a substantial part of what we spend on advertising is wasted
  • We know that people tend to prefer brands whose advertising they like
  • We know that advertising that speaks to a need tends to be more effective than that which doesn’t
  • We know that advertising that attracts attention tends to be more successful than that which doesn’t

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