Long Tail, Short Snout: A Twice-Sold Tale

Chris Anderson’s tome, “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More” (2006), wrestled the “long tail” distribution concept from the dominion of theoretical statisticians into the upturned palms of e-tailers, who the author posited would inherit the earth, to the bemusement of entertainment Goliaths. The strategy: sell a large number of unique items with relatively small quantities sold of each, in conjunction with the sale of fewer popular items in large quantities. Mr. Anderson intuited a dramatic shift in the publishing industry in which best sellers would diminish in importance and shared a seismic revelation in which Hollywood studios’ reliance on tentpole theatrical blockbuster franchises would dissipate.

“A world gone wrong,” as one musician mused.

Within months, the TV community appropriated the long-tail concept, adding the term to its lexicon. The appellation was applied to the plethora of burgeoning independent TV networks whose brands resonated with small audiences encompassing tens of thousands of loyal viewers — such as Bloomberg, Tennis Channel, NFL RedZone, Logo, Cine Latino — but whose distribution was unfortunately not large enough to register within Nielsen Media Research’s 22,000+ household panel and therefore, was only acknowledged by chicken scratches in Nielsen viewing reportage.



Advertisers and their agencies appreciated the brand value of the now-categorized Long Tail TV networks, but without viewing data — Nielsen was the currency  — they were excluded from many advertisers’ TV purchases.  Data-ist Rentrak arrived on the scene with millions of set-top boxes –- projected to hit 20 million households by the close of 2015 –- enabling the Long Tail TV networks to report household viewership.

Complications ensued. Definitions morphed. Confusion reigned.

The relegation of Long Tail status bespoke the following contradictory and misleading connotations for the media community:
-- Programming that is only consumed after TV viewers have watched all  their preferred content from the major TV networks, whether live or time-shifted.
-- Long Tail TV network inventory should only be evaluated after all of the major TV networks are scrutinized and purchased.
-- Re-categorization into “remnant” status, suggesting that Long Tail inventory has little value, is not saleable except opportunistically, and is great fodder for national programmatic TV packages.

However, the media community does a disservice to these Long Tail TV networks and needs to revaluate its relationship with their dedicated viewers:

-- Viewing data has demonstrated that Long Tail programming is not consumed after all other sources are exhausted — i.e., major TV networks, on demand — but perched at the head of a viewer’s “to consume” list.

-- Long Tail network viewers are dedicated to their channels and provide a unique value proposition for marketers trying to reach a specific segmentation — such as C-suite, ethnic, financial — and therefore, should be evaluated on their merits regardless of size and connection to media conglomerates and their myriad of channel appendages.

-- As the merits of programmatic TV purchasing — automation, data infusion, efficiency — permeate into the psyche of media professionals, one would hope that these Long Tail networks, whose mission is to provide relevant programming to a select audience, would be appreciated for their unique value proposition and reach extension rather than the limitation of their reach into the 114+ million TV household universe.

Perhaps Mr. Anderson did get one element of the long-tail theory correct as it relates to entertainment and advertising: the additive value for marketers when coupling many unique TV channels (with dedicated small audiences) in concert with inclusion of fewer popular TV channels with larger audiences to populate their TV campaigns, a premise supported by the programmatic TV national community.

Perhaps, in order to rectify these misunderstandings, the media community should rejigger the classification of these burgeoning, targeted Long Tail TV networks to Short Snout TV networks: TV networks that stare their loyal viewers directly in the face, snout to snout at the head of the content consumption cycle, with desirous programming that present an opportunity for marketers to connect with a valued and more fragmented, elusive television viewing constituency.

1 comment about "Long Tail, Short Snout: A Twice-Sold Tale".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, May 29, 2015 at 11:41 a.m.

    Interesting piece, Mitch. I agree that nobody should shun "long tail" networks because of their tiny audiences and Rentrak's ability to produce set usage ratings for such networks, due to its larger sample, gives them, at long last, a shot at capturing the buyers' attention. But I'm not sure that I would rate them above the big guys when prioritizing my TV selections. Experience has shown that one of the reasons why most high rated channels attain more viewers per minute is that their audiences are more, not less, loyal, while low rated channels---a few exceptions aside---are usually those with less frequent audiences.

    Also, we must remember that the vast majority of the population watches many channels---on average, about 14 per per week, 23 per month and still more over the course of a year. As a result, even if one of the "long tail" networks attains a weekly reach of 150,000 adults and an average minute viewership of 12,000, and these findings are now reportable, the chances are pretty good that the buyer has already reached these folks with his ad messages on CBS or Fox or ESPN or TNT or all of these and others as well. The "long tail" network probably adds virtually nothing to the advertiser's reach.

    While this does not mean that "long tail" networks should be ruled out, as audience duplication is a given when so many large and small channels are competing for the viewer's attention, the small fry need to come up with something more than lower CPMs to be considered---uniquely engaging content that creates a proven advantage for the advertiser, as an example. Their audience tonnage, even at lower CPMs, is simply not large enough to make buyers consider them first.

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