TV's Reach and Frequency Problem

One of the things that attracted me to television advertising is TV's dominant leadership position among media for delivering massive reach and frequency against consumer audiences in a short period of time. No other medium compares.

Thus, imagine my surprise to learn that most TV ad campaigns for mass awareness-focused brand advertisers in the U.S. rarely reach more than 75% of their target audience and typically deliver more than two-thirds of their ad impressions to only one-third of their target audience. Before starting Simulmedia, and spending a lot of time analyzing anonymous set-top box data - including directly-measured data on all of the ads viewed by more than 30 million viewers in the U.S. - I never understood or appreciated how hard it is for TV advertisers and their agencies to efficiently optimize the reach and frequency of their campaigns.

Audience fragmentation on TV is bad and getting worse. Thirty years ago, the vast majority of Americans had 13 or fewer channels to choose from, and only three major TV networks to watch. Ten years ago, few had more than 30 channels and only four major networks to watch. Today, most Americans have hundreds of channels to watch and the top network in most of the top markets in the U.S. - Univision - wasn't even considered a major TV network ten years ago. Twenty years ago, cable networks captured less than 10% of TV audiences. Today cable nets capture two-thirds of viewer time. For advertisers seeking big reach, buying broadcast network prime-time is still essential, but it's no longer enough; not even close.

Critical tools have not been able to keep up. While TV's media and measurement tools have evolved considerably over the past several decades, they have not been able to evolve at the pace that audience fragmentation occurred across networks, programs, dayparts and devices. When less than 10% of the total TV audience was on cable networks, the fact that most cable nets were either unmeasured or poorly measured mattered little. Today, the majority of viewing goes to cable networks, including about 20% of viewing that goes to cable networks that are either unmeasured or inadequately measured. So it's no surprise that capturing that elusive "last 20%" of campaign reach is so hard. Conventional measurement approaches are largely blind to a lot of TV's audience.

Expensive - and hard to radically evolve - planning and buying. One of the big advantages of TV advertising is that its "trading" processes and operations are so efficient. The processes for planning, buying, selling, trafficking and verifying TV ad campaigns have developed over decades and are probably ten times more efficient than they are for online advertising. Changing processes that have been set in stone for so long is a very expensive proposition, and not an attractive one when most of the marketplace is pushing to reduce fees and costs, not increase cost and complexity.

Wasn't broke enough to fix. In spite of its issues with declining campaign reach and increasing frequency imbalance which have been creeping up on it over the years, TV advertising has always been demonstrably better in this area than any alternatives, and the problems had not yet become acute. Now, with the Internet, and its massive scale, interactivity, dynamic ad delivery, census-level measurements and web video, connected TV's beginning to threaten conventional linear TV, the long-held notion that TV advertising wasn't broke enough to fix probably doesn't hold up any more.

What do you think? Does TV really have a reach and frequency problem?

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10 comments about "TV's Reach and Frequency Problem".
  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston , August 25, 2011 at 7:57 p.m.

    TV advertising's woes are nothing that couldn't readily be fixed by lowering the price of ads. Agencies pay more and more for less and less to the current tipping point.

  2. Bruce May from Bizperity , August 25, 2011 at 10:49 p.m.

    So Dave, perhaps you can explain something else that makes me question current television measurements. My own informal survey (my two kids) has shown that teenagers spend little or no time watching TV. They spend most of their time playing games (on every device every invented). I know that I don’t have the only two children on the planet exhibiting this behavior because they play online with virtually all their friends. Their favorite weekend activity is a LAN party. Most pundits talk about fractured media but only in terms of multiple channels, not in terms of other, completely different alternative entertainment options. Based on my own projections, this predicts the end of television within the next 15 years. Anybody want to address this one?

  3. Tom Cunniff from Combe Incorporated , August 26, 2011 at 9:06 a.m.

    I agree TV has a reach and frequency problem. But, I think it's a subset of a problem that affects the entire media industry -- both traditional and digital.

    The advent of cheap digital tools for production coupled with instant and easy global distribution has led to a massive content glut. We are producing far more pro and consumer-generated media than we can possibly consume or monetize.

    It's media hyperinflation -- too many content choices seeking too few eyeballs. A good solution would be to produce less, but better content. However, I don't see that happening any time soon.

    Audiences are shrinking and fragmenting, and in my opinion a lot of the hyper-targeting in digital that is intended as a solution only makes things worse. Too much digital innovation is anti-scale, when what's needed is *more* scale.
    The danger is that we will double-down on this misguided approach from digital and bring it to TV.

    If we do, we risk fouling up the best reach medium we have. And then TV truly will be "broken enough to fix".

  4. Ron Stitt from Fox Television Stations , August 26, 2011 at 9:34 a.m.

    Back in the day, there were moves towards concepts such as Effective Reach (% of target getting 3-8x exposures on a campaign) as opposed to Average Frequency (which can be skewed by a small segment seeing an excessive number of times). Requires a more sophisticated media plan to execute, and probably higher total CPM (sorry @Douglas!). And, about 15 years ago, "Recency" was the rage... effective reach timed to be achieved as close in time to purchase behavior. I argued that this essentially meant emphasizing reach over frequency in planning/buying, where CPM-driven approaches basically amplify frequency at the expense of effective reach. These types of concepts may be worth another look.

    @Bruce May be... TV (I really mean high-production value news and entertainment consumed in linear/lean back mode) certainly has to adapt to be relevant for younger audiences and the generational effect is something to be wary of. However, I wouldn't assume youth cohort media consumption behaviors to remain unchanged as they age. If that happens with the new generation, they will be the first.

  5. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia , August 26, 2011 at 10:05 a.m.

    Ron, I totally agree. We need focus more on delivering effective reach, and need to stop looking at only the "average" frequency. of a campaign's delivery Virtually every major "tent pole" movie campaign on TV I've looked at is delivering the vast majority of their impressions to only the first quintile of their target audience. The campaigns may have an "average" frequency of 8X to all audiences reached, but 20% of their target audience is getting 50X frequency, and the rest are getting 1-4X frequency.

  6. Terry Heaton from Reinvent21 , August 26, 2011 at 11:05 a.m.

    Long time no see, Dave. I do keep up with you, though. Excellent piece

    You wrote: "One of the big advantages of TV advertising is that its "trading" processes and operations are so efficient." This "advantage" is a curse in today's world for many reasons, because the problem with TV isn't metrics; it's an audience empowered with not only choices but also the ability to overcome the relentless bombardment of ads compliments of this efficient system. Moreover, television's real business -- advertising -- is itself in disruption. The whole Madison Avenue machine is in trouble, because it's based on a one-to-many paradigm. The smart money is investing in and acting on concepts that acknowledge the 3-way communications miracle that is the Web. The efficiency of which you speak isn't meaningless, but it has no growth future at all, because direct marketing rules the Web.

    But the biggest reason this is an enormous problem for media is that, while developing and honing this "advantage," television and advertising executives have ignored the cries of the very people they claim to serve: the viewers (hint: they serve their clients). In its 19 years of existence, for example, the program "Law and Order" evolved from an average of 48 minutes of program content to 43 minutes. That's an additional 5 minutes of marketing forced down the throats of viewers in the name of creating an efficient advertising system. Sorry, but it's time to pay the piper.

    Furthermore, rather than read the message delivered by viewers now armed with DVRs, the industry has ignored it in the name of trying to justify how the commercials "work" anyway or simply going about their business. Time is the new currency, and who has a spare hour to dedicate to watching TV commercials? One-third of prime time goes to marketing. It's an insult to the very people necessary to create the mass. Again, we're so busy caught up in the glory of our own "advantage" that we continue to ignore the cries from viewers to stop the friggin' bombardment of unwanted messages.

    Doc Searls has a great metaphor for this: The industry turns real people into "consumers," people sitting in front of a screen, mouths open, and crapping cash.

    Mass media will pay the price for this ignorance, so while I support everything you've said, I strongly believe it has nothing to do with the real problem.

    And don't even get me started on the programming itself...

  7. Gavin Ballas from Integrated Media Solutions , August 26, 2011 at 2:09 p.m.

    Dave...I'm sure many of the marketers you mentioned who reach 20% of their audience 50X to get their average frequency of 3 would never accept an online display campaign without frequency capping! Though that is basically what you get with many TV buys.

    Some of us in the DR space are focused on achieving an optimal 3+ reach %. Focusing on optimal 3+ reach gets you the best overall response as measured by calls and web activity.

  8. Molly Jackson from WACH Fox TV , August 30, 2011 at 12:05 p.m.

    Are you sure its the media that is to blame? You will get no argument about fractionalization from me, its a legitimate concern! But what about the other factor's that contribute to the success of the ad, the creative? (just to name one) 98% of the messages I see on a daily basis, from the Walmart's down to the corner tire store, don't speak to the target demo about something they care about instead filling their :30 seconds with "for all your legal needs" ad speak that means nothing to the viewer, even the one who is laid up on his couch with a PI claim. #i'mjustsayin

  9. Molly Jackson from WACH Fox TV , August 30, 2011 at 12:11 p.m.

    PS I agree with Terry Heaton! Just look at any traditional media's facebook page or twitter feed to see that they don't get it. Many aren't used to real engagement and conversations and are broadcasting in these social forums like they are sitting safely behind the 10pm news desk. TV along with other traditional media will adapt or die, just like "free" terrestrial radio did.

  10. Doug Garnett from Atomic Direct , August 30, 2011 at 5:44 p.m.

    Want some of the ultimate measurability? As a DRTV practitioner, the rates of direct response per media dollar really haven't changed in the past 15 years.

    DVR's didn't drop them. All the hype about online intrusion haven't hurt them (and it's clear that online TV ads are the most miserable over-priced media around).

    So with all this angst, TV measurability can always be increased. I love knowing primarily response to the ads. But I'd also like to know more about the people we influenced that didn't respond.

    But all this elitist self-loathing around the TV biz is really pretty silly when you are watching the results.

    My big question is this: What psychology among advertisers drives the desire for agencies to predict TV's death? Because it's pretty rampantly out of control.

    Perhaps it's related to the psychology that drives theories of "anti-products" like OK soda.