Real Media Riffs - Wednesday, Oct 25, 2006

THESE LADIES DOTH PROTEST TOO MUCH, WETHINKS -- Cable network research executives have raised some important methodological issues concerning Nielsen's plans to begin releasing commercial ratings later this year, but the industry's decision to sit it out raises a big question of its own: Is cable simply seeking to stall the inevitable, or maybe even hoping to derail it? It sure looks that way from the outside looking in. Consider the panicky way cable networks first reacted to the surprise broadcast network initiative earlier this year to produce average commercial minute ratings--and the hand-wringing that followed the broadcast networks' PR coup. Then there's the endless banter about how cable could seize some high ground. The immediate debunking of the plan. Cable's insistence that it opt out of the process, even after Nielsen agreed to take the steps necessary to make its monitoring of cable commercial minutes as solid as broadcast's, and to even apply to the Media Rating Council for an audit and accreditation to use that data as ratings currency. And, finally, Nielsen's decision to label the data as "evaluation data" through the 2006-07 season, and to make it available for free, at that. Clearly, this has been a PR blunder for the cable industry from the start, and this week's decision to sit out a process that ultimately should be about greater transparency, disclosure, information-sharing and accountability, only makes cable look like it's got something to hide. Let's see, what could that be?



Surely there are some legitimate methodological issues to be wary of, but they have been spelled out, reported on and amply discussed at a number of insular and public industry forums, including one today. And even most cable network researchers concede that those issues should be resolved in the next couple of months. So why not share the data, open the books, and let the industry observe how those methodological improvements lead to better results? Maybe it's because those results may not look as good as some people would like. Methods can only go so far. At a certain point, this stuff becomes about real viewer behavior. And there's a real assumption that when it comes to some cable TV networks, real viewing behavior during real TV commercial breaks, really sucks. And if that's true, it should be right out in the open. No sneaky skulking about, while the industry is trying to vet this data, see if it can make it better, and ultimately sanction it as a new marketplace currency. That may not be something cable networks want, but it is something advertisers and agencies have been lobbying for, for a long time now. To be sure, Nielsen's plan isn't perfect, but it's got the most momentum of any to surface in the time we've been observing this business. So any efforts to impede it, or potentially to derail it, appear mighty suspicious in our book--or pocketpiece.

Look, no one knows exactly how much of the cable industry concern is founded on Nielsen's methods vs. real viewer behavior, but when we asked one researcher whom we have a great deal of respect for, he estimated that about two-thirds was methodology, and a third was real. The real problem, of course, may be the part that's real. And that's something that deserves heightened industry introspection, not a veil of secrecy. The reality is that some cable networks--not all, but some pretty big and gluttonous ones--do shameful things with their commercial breaks. They squeeze as much saleable inventory as they possibly can in there. And then, to add insult to injury, they reserve the most desirable positions--the coveted A and Z spots--for their own promotional announcements. That's not in the best interest of advertisers. It's not in the best interest of advertising agencies. And it's definitely not in the best interest of TV viewers. In fact, it's not even in the best interest of those cable networks--ultimately. That's because, sooner or later, they will ultimately be found out.

Okay, so it's no trade secret. Even with the demise of the Four As' Commercial Activity Report some years ago, there's plenty of data circulating around out there. There's TNS and Nielsen's Monitor-Plus. And there's a slew of agencies, media auditors and independent consultants crunching data frequently enough that we know what the problem is, and we know where it lies. Obfuscating it for another season isn't going to fix the problem. It may buy some time. It may preserve some advertising market share. But ultimately, it's going to get discovered, and people will find a strong correlation between the crappy things some cable networks do with their commercial breaks, and the deleterious effect on viewing behavior.

To be fair, it's not just cable networks. And it's definitely not all cable networks that do this. As TNS research chief Jon Swallen points out in a recent analysis, the worst culprits are the top tercile--that's one-third for you non-research types--of cable networks. Swallen's a gentleman. And he's also not stupid. So he wouldn't share the names of the specific cable networks in the top third, but we have a feeling they have names that begin with L, and U, and T--lots of Ts.

The really sad part about cable's decision to sit out Nielsen's new commercial ratings-- aside from making the industry look loathsome and desperate--is that it is painting all of cable with one vicious brush. The truth is that if you look at Swallen's data, you'll also see the other side of the story: The fact that some cable networks--the lightest tercile--are actually the cleanest when it comes to commercial clutter. Again, we don't know their names, but we suspect that there's a rainbow of them out there and that they'll weather this storm and come out looking good in the end.

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