Where Have All the Viewers Gone?

Published: August 21, 2007
By Stephen Newman
iMedia Connection

Internap’s EVP of advertising services explores ways that networks can work around the decline in traditional TV viewership and still reach large audiences with more accuracy.

Figures show fewer people are watching TV. But are fewer people actually watching the typical weekly lineup? Or is it just that “TV” is being watched less?

You are probably thinking to yourself, “What’s the difference?” Is it purely semantics or are people watching the same amount of shows but using their computer screens rather than their television sets?

What’s behind the decline?
According to an AP article published earlier this year, it is “TV’s worst spring in recent memory.” More than 2.5 million fewer people were watching ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox than at the same time last year.

Many theories are bouncing around as to the cause of the decline in viewership. Some speculate that the early start to Daylight Savings Time has prompted more people to spend more time on outdoor activities and other interests, making TV-viewing less of a priority. On the other hand, many are citing poor measurement as a key factor.

These theories and others are all likely to have some impact. Even if people are watching TV as much as they did last year, if viewership isn’t being measured properly, advertisers will still get the message that their efforts are reaching fewer traditional viewers.

But the key word there is traditional.

Are traditional viewers your target viewers?
So, the major television networks are complaining to Nielsen that its methodology is not appropriate for today’s audiences. “People are not consuming less television, they’re watching it in different ways and the measurements haven’t caught up,” said NBC’s chief research executive Alan Wurtzel in the aforementioned AP article.
They complain that a segment of the population is not measured to the level of participation, which is true for the most part; if you record a particular episode of your favorite show and watch it more than 24 hours later, you’re not counted in the show’s ratings. The same holds true for those who download the episode and watch it later on an iPod or computer, or stream an episode from a network’s website. The networks also complain that their ethnic representation is not well reported. They are voicing their opinions loudly and publicly. But, is it possible that this complaining process is nothing more than positioning?

After all, the networks need the billions of dollars that advertisers will pay for the traditional viewing habits of their audiences. As well, the advertisers need the eyeballs of the networks’ demographics and will pay premiums to catch the attention of the “hard to reach” demographics.

Take men 18 to 34, for example. This group has experienced the biggest drop-off for network television in the past 5 years, according to Nielsen. Specifically, Nielsen reported that primetime viewership among men in this age group has fallen off by nearly eight percent but said about half of this decline could be attributed to recent changes in the composition of its ratings sample or measurement system. In contrast, though, some researchers say this is because this demographic is losing interest in “appointment” television.

This trend should come as no surprise; this particular demographic has been waning for quite some time. Research studies have shown the average male 18-34 spends his free time playing video games or surfing the internet; that’s time they might have spent watching TV in the past.

Can’t all viewing formats get along?
A study commissioned by NBC.com and conducted by the research firm InsightExpress showed that 78 percent of the site’s NBC Rewind service users watched an episode they had missed on broadcast TV. Seventy-eight percent! If you knew more than half of your viewership is going online, wouldn’t you want to shift away from the “traditional” ad platforms?

By focusing on improving ratings measurement, though, Networks are missing a key point here. Even if Nielsen changes their methodology to include today’s audiences, they will never gain the same insight into the viewing habits of every single person who watches a particular episode of “Lost” or “Desperate Housewives” that they can with online tracking.

This is because networks rely on data that bases a nation’s viewing habits on a select sample body that takes the time to fill out a diary of their listening/viewing habits. Even though Nielsen knows how many people live in each of its “Nielson Family” households, they do not know exactly how many people live in each of America’s 109,000,000 households. All they have are averages. So, while reports of households might be fairly accurate (assuming Nielsen’s sample group is a representative sample), the subsequent assumptions that are made regarding broadcast-viewing habits are conjecture at best. Yet, many advertising budgets are still set according to these assumptions.

So what tactics should the networks employ to deliver content in the digital age?

New technologies, such as dynamic targeting — the collection of user login information — provide the ability to collect precise data and report on that data. By collecting user-provided statistics, such as gender and year of birth, entertainment companies can detect exactly who is watching and when. This takes measurement out of the realm of assumption and into the realm of precision and fact.

Broadcasters have traditionally made assumptions about who their audience is, according to the format of show and/or station. Online audiences may differ significantly from these assumptions, and the reporting mechanisms available to track these audiences are proving this fact.

The more you understand your audience, the better you can tailor content, customize product offers and demonstrate the value of your content to advertisers, maximizing your advertising revenue.

For advertisers, targeting by user profiles ensures campaigns only reach their specified target audience, making content more attractive and able to command a premium advertising rate.
Contrary to popular belief, advertising is well accepted by online audiences when it is relevant to them. Demographic targeting allows advertisers to tailor messages to each individual member of the audience ensuring they receive an offer or advertisement suited to their demographic profile.

Demographic targeting is driving up the value of advertising in the online space, as advertisers begin to realize they are able to reach the exact audiences they want and are willing to pay higher premiums to do so. Advertisers realize that their select audience will have a much higher conversion rate and it is therefore worth paying for a select few rather than the mass.

The internet also has the potential for unlimited two-way interaction. Instant messaging can be used for contesting; email solicits feedback from viewers (please sign up for our fan site community, et cetera); access is provided to stats of users that are listening and watching “live” and much more.

There is no doubt the internet is an ever evolving place and the technologies used today to measure and report on user viewing habits will continue to improve. However, the internet is not a passing fad, and if the networks continue to do business assuming people will watch television as they always have, the once proud industry of television will become a passing fad.


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