Commentary

TV Has A Melting Iceberg Problem

  • by , Featured Contributor, September 13, 2018
In 12 to 18 months, AT&T plans to make “long-tail” inventory on Turner Networks available for data-driven, automated buying on its recently purchased AppNexus exchange platform. That’s what AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson told investors at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia conference yesterday.

Why would AT&T make ad inventory from networks like TBS, TNT and HLN available like that? Don’t digital exchange platforms commoditize ad inventory? AT&T will do it because TV has an iceberg problem.

Here's what I mean:

The majority of the selling and buying activity of TV advertising -- and the entire narrative around the upfronts -- is focused on the best prime-time shows and sports, the highest-rated programming on TV today. However, the vast majority of national TV’s total ad inventory on an impression basis today -- about 80% -- now occurs on episodes of shows with ratings below 0.5, episodes that less than one-half of one percent of American households are tuned to.

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Imagine that. Just as with icebergs, everyone in TV is incredibly focused -- myopically, you might say -- on the tip of  TV’s inventory that is exposed and highly visible, and totally misses that most of TV’s inventory is not hot, prime-time shows and NFL football. It is the hundreds of millions of people every day that watch small networks, small shows, less favored dayparts, niche programming.

All of that little stuff -- below the surface and invisible to most -- is five times bigger than the hot stuff.

And, just like icebergs today, the tip of TV’s inventory has another problem. It is melting. Most big shows and networks are losing ratings and audiences much faster than mid-sized and small networks, many of which are actually growing. Just check out Nielsen’s year-over-year ratings by network size. Big is shrinking. Long tail is growing.

TV ad buyers and sellers are quite expert today at transacting highly visible, high-rated programming, most of which goes at premium rates. As AT&T’s Stephenson noted at Communacopia, Turner’s NBA spots aren’t likely to be programmatically sold on an exchange for a very long time.

However, the TV ad marketplace is not very good at transacting and fully valuing long-tail inventory.

As I’ve written before, an enormous amount of television ad inventory in the U.S is sold at CPMs well below $2.50 when measured on a P2+. Yes, below $2.50.

Thus, everyone in the market would benefit from exposing the massive amount of TV’s iceberg – its long tail – that is invisible to most of the market. With apples-to-apples CPMs for premium digital video typically $10-@20 or more, buyers would benefit from access to lots and lots of cost-efficient TV inventory, and TV media owners would benefit from a lot more yield.

Not only would opening up TV’s long-tail inventory be a good thing, it’s probably an essential thing for TV’s survival. Like icebergs in climate change, the tips are melting really fast. TV companies better build a market for their underwater inventory before too much of their hottest shows melt away. What do you think?

16 comments about "TV Has A Melting Iceberg Problem".
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  1. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics, September 13, 2018 at 8:18 p.m.

    Managing  lots of spots on low rates inventory has always been a logistical challenge and few TV folks are prepared without some sort of automation. Still, it’s clearly a huge revenue opportunity. 

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 14, 2018 at 12:27 a.m.

    Jack, a substantial proportion of commercial placements now bought in the upfront and scatter market already involve very low rated cable announcements as cable represents the largest share of national TV ad dollars. What I believe Dave is referring to is even lower rated spots on "long tail" channels that are frequently overlooked by national TV time buyers. He may also be counting post 1AM spots on some of the channels now being used, which are also very, very low rated and, hence,  very economically priced. However, I question whether these represent anything like 80% of TV's audience tonnage. A more likely figure is 5%. Also, these very low rated time periods and channels---by low rated I mean getting barely .1% ratings----are the domain of infomercials and other direct response ads which many branding advertisers might not feel comfortable being associated with or adjacent to, no matter what the CPMs are.

    Nevertheless, Dave has a point about buying TV time more selectively, with better targeting methods---for those brands that are allowed to go it alone by their corporations and are not so concerned about the environment their ads appear in, high reach attainment, the merchandising benefits of appearing in well known shows, etc. For such brands allocating a portion of their ad budgets to such buys may be beneficial, but only as an add-on to what they are now doing, not as a substitute for it.

  3. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia replied, September 14, 2018 at 7:28 a.m.

    Very true Jack. This is a problem tailor-made for automated, data driven buying platforms, which is why I think that over the next 3-4 years we’ll see more digital tech enhance linear TV advertising than replacing it

  4. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia replied, September 14, 2018 at 7:37 a.m.

    Ed, thanks for the strong but, but on the 80% number, please consult Nielsen AMRLD and you will find that the 80% is true. Sub 0.5 spots haven’t accounted for less than 5% of national TV ad impressions since Barry Fischer’s Media at the Millenium work (the change of The Millenia).

  5. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 14, 2018 at 9:28 a.m.

    Dave, I have no problem with the idea that spots with ratings .5 or less account for 80% of all TV impressions as these are mainly to be found on cable channels in all dayparts. My problem is your categorizing these as TV's "long tail" and  the inherent assumption that these spots are being largely ignored by national TV time buyers. Actually they are buying tons and tons of low CPM, low rated spots, mainly on the basic cable channels along with their higher CPM broadcast network and syndication purchases.What's being ignored is TV's real "long tail"--- cable channels with very spotty national coverage and extremely low average minute ratings---like .1% or less. Of course these charge the lowest CPMs---because there is little demand, but they represent a very, very small part of the total TV audience imporession spectrum---not  80%.

    As you know, I agree with you that better targeting can be a major plus for many brands---though not all brands----and I agree that cable---large as well as small channels and all dayparts---is a far better vehicle for attaining this goal providing brands are allowed to buy their own TV time. I believe that pitching it that way is a much better---and more salable---approach than trying to sell advertisers or TV's true "long tail" channels, which are simply too small in terms of audience attainment to make a difference---even though they deserve consideration. The problem is how do we convince advertisers with brands that could benefit to take the time and dig into the data---using services such as yours----so they can begin to make more sensible TV buying allocations---usually a mix of a low CPM, not so well targeted mass audience tonnage base coupled with more selective buys to place more impression weight where it will do the most good.

    To make this sell we must talk in terms that they can understand, not broad, impressionistic strokes. Like what "long tail" channels and dayparts are we specifically claiming that they are ignoring and what is the audience attainment of said channels. And we must recognize that better targeting is invariably going to cost more---not less---in terms of CPMs, though it may well be worth it.


  6. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia replied, September 14, 2018 at 9:43 a.m.

    Ed, I get your point and it is a fair one, but there is not much question that TV buyers today handle spots with ratings below 0.5 as bulk inventory. Those spots are bought as packaging, ADU's or DR. Very, very few are actually bought by name or on any data beyond broad sex/age demographics since the standard error rate for a Nielsen rating of a 0.2 or 0.3 show is over 100. For all real purposes, the spots are "below the surface" when it comes to the TV ad buying process. The thesis of my column is that the industry better start using data, automation and optimization to start uncovering these spots - finding the needles in the haystack and aggregatig them by the ton.

  7. Darrin Stephens from McMann & Tate, September 14, 2018 at 11:42 a.m.

    I hate to break it to you, but there are spots in broadcast primetime that do demo ratings lower than .5 and those are surely not bulk inventory. Ditto for many highly regarded cable shows.

  8. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia replied, September 14, 2018 at 11:47 a.m.

    Darrin, thanks. You are correct. I wasn't suggesting that there aren't lots of sub .5's that can - and are - sold on their demo's and for their content/day-part/network uniqueness. That is the core thesis. The point I was trying to make - but not very artfully - is that the vast majority of those spots are not transacted that way, and that it is a big opportunity for the industry.

  9. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 14, 2018 at 12:18 p.m.

    It's a very complex problem with trade-offs that must be considered. If a brand was allowed to make its own cable buys and tried to cherry pick shows from among a cable channel's menu based on it's specific targeting needs, it would probably be charged a considerably higher CPM than a bulk buyer who is obliged to be in all of the channel's shows. The problem arises  if many brands suddenly began to go this route. The odds are that certain shows---younger/upscale oriented shows----- would be in much greater demand than older/low brow entries so the sellers would be forced  to create packages---at discounted CPMs----that entice even the more selectively targeted brands to continue in their rotation deals. I suspect, however, that the first brands to go this route would probably benefit---for a while---until it became more or less standard practice, in which case the sellers would make those CPM adjustments that are needed to maximize their total ad revenue yield for their entire program schedules.

  10. Long Ellis from Longview Media Consulting, September 14, 2018 at 2:06 p.m.

    Interesting piece Dave. The "invisible" inventory is actually quite visible and readily available. It is just too labor intensive to buy and manage. TV buyers can only handle so many cable TV network buys.

    I also think the TV networks will have an issue with selling lower rated inventory at scale and at cheap CPMS. They will end up being stuck with only higher rated inventory that now has to be priced at a level that is too high for advertisers to accept.

    This is why TV networks package their high rated inventory with their lower rated inventory, thus moving it all at once and at a an average price that advertisers can swallow.

    Selling too much inventory at a cheap price IMHO will start a land slide of commoditization. This is a TV network's biggest concern.

  11. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics, September 14, 2018 at 4:23 p.m.

    OTT and digital inventory are delivered one impression at a time. Clearly would be much more labor intensive than even the lowest rated TV inventory — so buying/selling is done differently.  That is why labor has been bypassed and programmatic is used. Seems to work pretty well, no?  Business pretty robust on that side. TV is not set up for one at a time transactions, but if 80% of spots are below a .5 rating we are still talking about spots delivering 1.5 million impressions (.5% of 304 million persons 2+).  Clearly, if these are considered too small to manage, we need a different way to transact business.  Certainly, systems are in place to estimate long tail and very long tail inventory. Systems like those developed at Dave’s company, Simulmedia, can also buy and sell them “programmatically” one spot at a time. Labor cost are efficiently bypassed. The point is that TV can no longer thrive by living off the tip of the iceberg, or packaging lower rated inventory with stronger inventory. Nets know how to do that already, but there are still millions and millions of impressions going to waste or direct response (which actually can do well — ask Ronco, but that’s another story).  It’s time to sell these spots programmatically. If we don’t change how Dave’s 80% of TV is bought and sold, and impressions continue to erode, the prognosis is pretty dim. 

  12. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 14, 2018 at 6:38 p.m.

    Jack---and Dave---I'm afraid that nothing will change so long as 75% or more of national TV ad dollars are bought on a corporate not a brand by brand basis. That's something that only the advertisers can change and it will entail significantly higher buying costs---which I feel may be worth the added expense---to get it done.

  13. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia replied, September 14, 2018 at 6:57 p.m.

    I’m totally with you on this Ed. Changing from corporate to product/brand buying would be game-changing.

  14. Long Ellis from Longview Media Consulting, September 15, 2018 at 1:01 p.m.

    I think for the national TV marketplace to move forward, there has to be a win-win for buyers AND sellers. At Google TV ads in 2007, It was easy of them to say that buying the long tail of TV inventory should mimic buying digital display. The question has always been at what price? When it comes to national TV, the buy side perspective has always been "how can I buy it cheaper". Google never factored in how the sell side would view this approach and the reason that no programmatic TV platform to date has scaled is due to this exact same issue.

    When will everyone figure out that for the national TV networks, cheaper is not better?

    Also, like it or not, in many cases Direct Response rates out perform national rates across the long tail and in many dayparts other than prime time. Selling these low rated dayparts at cheaper and cheaper national rates in not the answer. That will simply intensify the bleeding IMHO.

  15. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia replied, September 15, 2018 at 6:11 p.m.

    Excellent points Long. To create a win/win, I think that it is critical for TV to attract the native digital advertisers, first with CPM’s that are competitive, then with performance and ROI and then, as they mature, with great adjaceny and branding. TV can’t start with the last first. It hasn’t worked very well, and the TV media owners don’t have years to wait them out.

  16. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics replied, September 17, 2018 at 4:50 p.m.

    Am with you here. It will take this sort of change to move the needle. But if it doesn’t move the iceberg will continue to melt. 

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