Cooperation, competition at upfront

Webs, advertisers embrace ratings

For half a century, Nielsen Media Research program ratings have been coin of the realm whenever advertisers negotiate with TV networks.

And for probably almost as long, buyers have lamented that it’s more useful for them to know how many people watched their commercials than how many people watched the shows they ran in.

Further annoying advertisers and their agencies is the fact that such commercial ratings systems have been available in Europe for decades.

However, thanks to the changing viewing habits of a nation increasingly hooked on digital video recorders, commercial and DVR ratings are finally here.

The network upfront, which kicks off the week of May 14, is when the broadcast and cable networks unveil their new-season lineups to advertisers, trot out their stars, make their pitches with frequently painful sketches, and ignite intense negotiations in which most of their commercial inventory for the coming year — projected at about $9 billion this time around — is sold.

It’s a notorious spectacle — a loud, raucous whirlwind of dealmaking marked by partying, posturing, fevered press coverage and battling over whether rates should increase, decrease or stay the same.

But this year, perhaps for the first time in the upfront’s almost five-decade history, there could be as much cooperation as competition.

On May 31, Nielsen will begin offering ratings on the ads themselves — or more precisely, average commercial-minute ratings — as well as their familiar program ratings.

Nielsen also will bow to the reality of an increasingly DVR-enabled aud by offering commercial ratings for various time-shifted viewership: “Live” (viewing when the program actually airs), “Live Plus” (shows that are recorded but watched the same day) and “Live Plus One” (shows that are recorded and watched the next day). There’s also “Live Plus” offerings covering days two through seven.

“This year, there are so many possible storylines that you just can’t write one thing,” says Pam Zucker, senior VP of marketplace ignition at MediaVest, the media agency powerhouse whose clients include Procter & Gamble, Coke, Masterfoods and Kraft, among others.

“It’s fascinating from my perspective,” adds Kate Sirkin, exec VP and global research director for holding company SMG, whose media agencies handle several entertainment clients, including the Walt Disney Co. “I was so frustrated looking at program ratings. There wasn’t much opportunity for creativity. In many cases, (commercial ratings) are a win-win for everybody.”

Indeed, the flexibility offered by these new approaches lets each advertiser customize their TV deals based on the ratings methodology that’s right for them.

“Now that you have respondent-level data, you can do a data stream against almost anything,” says Mike Shaw, president of sales and marketing at ABC. “I don’t know how that will shake out, which is why we’ve taken the position that one size won’t fit all. … If a particular advertiser needs an individual schedule parsed between two different ratings streams, we don’t have an issue with that.”

Movie marketers, who typically spend just over $2.5 billion on network and cable TV ads a year, according to research firm TNS Media Intelligence, haven’t historically been big players during the upfront. After all, with competition fierce for playdates, and slates always in adjustment, what film company can commit ad dollars for spots that will run a year from now?

However, the new measuring systems could change that by giving the studios the ability to buy now and make big changes as to when and where their spots will run later.

There’s been a long-held ad-biz assumption that commercials for films are more compelling than those for say, toothpaste. Now, armed with quantifiable data that could actually prove that, movie studios and their agencies could have the ammunition they need to buy their spots in the upfront, then juggle them around later according to their changing needs.

“There is a lot of research that shows people want to see trailers,” says Susie Thomas, senior VP and director of research and insights at Palisades Media, which handles media purchasing for the Weinstein Co. and Miramax, plus several other entertainment clients. “That’s another reason why we would like to look at ratings commercial by commercial. We’d like to see more research, but the idea floating around the halls is that this is something we could negotiate with.”

Meanwhile, with DVR penetration in the U.S. now at about 17%, the networks are pleased to have a system that accounts for the time-shifting aud. Ratings analysis has shown that average total viewers for such primetime shows as “CSI,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “The Office” increases significantly when time-shifters are factored in.

Of course, these new systems are not a panacea, either. Zach Rosenberg, exec VP and general manager of the Western division of Horizon Media predicts Live Plus ratings will be useless for movie marketers who need to get people into a theater or Wal-Mart immediately and could care less what consumers watch on their TiVo days later.

“Movie marketers are not going to care about it,” he says.

However, there is a general feeling on both sides of the negotiating table that these new rating systems will solve some of the tension-creating issues that have been building over the years, especially those that have cropped up since the first TiVo was introduced in 1999.

“I’m actually very, very pleased,” says Jo Ann Ross, president of network sales for CBS, which has had preliminary meetings already with all of its agency clients. “There have been no contentious negotiations. I think we’ve made a lot of progress, and a lot of the hurdles that may have loomed large in January and February are being addressed in a very proactive and constructive way.”

“It’s become pop culture to declare winners and losers (in the upfront),” concludes ABC’s Shaw. “I think some of that is changing.”

For his part, Shaw says he’s looking forward to being able to focus on doing deals that benefit both sides of the desk for once, and not having to endure encounters with the public like when “my neighbor, who knows nothing about the business, says ‘Hey, I heard you had a shitty upfront.'”

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