Real Media Riffs - Tuesday, Nov 7, 2006

PAUSE AND EFFECT -- Well, it's Election Day. The day millions of people vote to elect candidates and decide on propositions representing the interests of everyone - even the millions who don't vote. And with the possible exception of the state of Florida, we'd like to think that everyone's vote actually counts. Which once again brings us back to Madison Avenue's most influential pollster - the one that sets the vote for hundreds of millions of TV viewers, and tens of billions of TV advertising dollars. Given the date, the election metaphor is an irresistible one. Too bad somebody beat us to the punch.

Some guy named David Aidem, who, in an entry on his blog today, makes a case for why Nielsen's TV ratings are tantamount to a daily election, and why they need to be regulated by the media equivalent of the Board of Elections - and ideally not Florida's. Aidem, whose surname coincidentally reads is a reversible anagram for the word "media," makes some good analogies between the need of a democratic society to have an honest, accurate voter count and the need of a free advertising marketplace to have an equally accurate ratings count.



Of course, Aidem is writing about viewers' votes. But there's another Nielsen vote we're beginning to wonder about. The ad industry's. For as long as we can remember, Madison Avenue has been voting for commercial ratings. And just when it looked like it was going to get them - albeit in the interim form of average commercial minutes - they've been postponed once again. Now there were some very good reasons for holding the process up, most of which were articulated by ESPN researcher Glenn Enoch Tuesday during an industry luncheon on the topic. When it comes to TV advertising currencies, bad data is worse than no data at all, Enoch pointed out, and we have no doubt that the version Nielsen finally releases early next year will, as he suggests, "be a better product that fully reaches the marketplace."

The problem isn't holding things up to fix components of what was a jerry-rigged system at best. The problem is the primary reason Nielsen is delaying it this time. It wasn't because of its methods, Nielsen said, but because its clients have decided that the new commercial ratings need to include some time-shifted viewing that wasn't part of the original equation.

Yikes! We thought Madison Avenue already put that debate to rest last spring when the networks caved on the use of "live-only" ratings for their upfront advertising deals. It was a rare public Nielsen victory for the advertising world, and now it looks like it's about to be taken away, all under the guise of getting something else advertisers want: commercial ratings.

So let's get this straight. The fundamental issue for advertisers is whether viewers are actually watching their TV commercials? Do we have that right? And that's the reason why they rejected DVR playback last spring - because most people tend to skip commercials during playback. Is that right?

Okay, we got that part. So armed with that victory, Madison Avenue continues to push for an even more precise measure of people watching their commercials: commercial ratings. Only the initiative is proposed by some broadcast networks. Well, that was certainly nice of them, wasn't it? It's their motives that we question. They are motives that have become abundantly clear in recent weeks as the networks have increased the pressure on Nielsen to begin reintegrating time-shifted viewing into the commercial ratings data stream.

We can't blame them for trying. It makes eminent business sense from a network's point-of-view. But it kind of defeats the whole "are they actually watching our TV commercial" thing. Doesn't it? If the reason Madison Avenue dug its heels in on the "live" vs. time-shifted ratings during the upfront made sense, why doesn't it continue to make sense for commercial ratings?

Could it be that Madison Avenue is simply too weak-kneed when it comes to Nielsen battles and cannot handle two stands in a row? Or could it be that agencies are even more frightened about winning that battle and explaining to their clients why they are delivering fewer GRPs for similar TV advertising schedules?

We don't know the answers, but what we do know is that unless the ad industry takes a firm stand on time-shifted viewing, they're about to get baked back into the commercial ratings process. That's what Nielsen's Tom Ziangas said Tuesday during the luncheon, and it's only a question of what form of time-shifted viewing Nielsen's clients agree to add back in: live plus same day, live plus seven days, or a new stream of live plus a couple of days.

CBS research chief Dave Poltrack acknowledged that re-integrating playback into the currency was part of the network's support for commercial ratings. We love Poltrack, and have the deepest respect for his integrity and his knowledge of television audience research, but when he said, "No one has been able to explain the difference to me between that and live-only," we nearly choked on the rubber chicken being served. It's called fast-forwarding, Dave, and it's what the millions of people do to commercials when they play network TV programs back on their DVRs. It's the reason why advertisers didn't want playback included in their advertising deals. And it should be the reason why they don't want them included in their TV commercial ratings either.

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