Commercial Ratings: Yes, But...

The developments of the past 12 to 18 months regarding commercial ratings have certainly been fascinating to follow. With continued pressure from advertisers for increased accountability, it's encouraging to see the industry getting closer to more precise and relevant data. And regardless of its quality at this early stage, the data has been laid in front of buyers and sellers who must now come to terms with it and figure out how to shape and work on its evolution.

However, in the industry's mad dash to obtain average commercial ratings, I believe a crucial issue has been overlooked. Specifically, how compliant are members of Nielsen households in "punching out" on their People Meters when they leave the room during commercial breaks?

This has been a nagging concern since the dawn of the People Meter era 20 years ago, but now it's even more urgent that it be addressed since commercial ratings will be used to determine pricing. This flaw may not be as crucial for program ratings since viewers are more likely to be in the room during a show, but commercial pods are a time when significant out-of-the-room activity occurs. Despite this concern, there seems to be an odd silence on the issue.



While average commercial audiences are reported to be lower than program minutes, advertisers/agencies may find themselves still paying for some viewers who aren't actually present. That's why it's important for continued industry pressure on Nielsen for deployment of a passive meter, perhaps similar to the one being used by Arbitron in Houston and Philadelphia as well as in the test of Project Apollo (the joint venture between Arbitron & Nielsen). This meter picks up imbedded audio signals (for radio and some in-store media as well) and dispenses with button punching by respondents.

Analyses of minute-by-minute data show that during the average commercial minute, audiences are generally 5% to 10% lower than during the average program minute. But does this reflect the reality of TV viewing? 20 years ago a company named RD Percy tested a passive heat meter for TV measurement. I recall reviewing a presentation that showed audience levels dropped significantly, 25% to 40% during some commercial breaks. That strongly suggests that Nielsen overreports audience levels during commercial breaks. It would be helpful if Arbitron had minute-by-minute data to share from Houston & Philadelphia that might confirm (or refute) that audiences indeed drop more than what the People Meter reports.

Of course, just because someone leaves the room doesn't necessarily mean he/she stops paying attention to the audio, especially if she wants to know when to return to a show when it resumes. In fact, in the minds of some respondents, they are still watching TV even when out of the room.

This idea was buttressed by a study of former sample members conducted by Nielsen in the mid-1990s. When asked what they considered "watching TV" to be, respondents replied with six or seven scenarios, one of which was being out of the room while being able to hear the program. (In fact, only one-third said they considered watching TV to be when their eyes were on the screen). This may ameliorate the problem -- but it's still a question that should be investigated.

Presently attention appears to be focused on Nielsen's MonitorPlus and its ability (or inability) to precisely pick up commercial occurrences. However, any improvement in this area will be diminished if the People Meter's audience information for these commercials is flawed. Hopefully, this problem receives more consideration than the lack of VCR playback data has, a Nielsen deficiency for the past 15 years that has been allowed to go unresolved. (Yes, playback existed before DVRs.)

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