Broadcasters Mine the Gold

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As the upfront buying season goes into overdrive this month, a new Nielsen audience segmentation study is providing ammunition in the battle between the broadcast and cable television networks. Broadcasters claim the study proves their higher-rated programs are watched by viewers who are more valuable to advertisers, and cable programmers say the nets are using the study to "manufacture value" where none exists.

The syndicated Quad study, released in mid-April, looks at six weeks of programming across broadcast, cable, and syndication between October 23 and December 13, l998, and divides viewers into one of four groups based on how long and how often they watch a show. Gold Card viewers watch most of a show, and tune in often; Occasionally Committeds watch most of a show, but tune in less often; Silver Sliders watch only some of a show, but tune in often; and Viewers Lite only watch some of a show, and tune in less often.

Gold Cards are the best kind of viewers to have, right? Well that, at least, is the argument that broadcasters are making. The analysis revealed that NYPD Blue, Diagnosis Murder, and The X-Files racked up the largest percentage of Gold Card minutes, that is, minutes watched by loyal viewers who stick around for most of the show: 60.5 percent, 56.5 percent, and 56.2 percent, respectively. Cable programs, on the other hand, not only drew fewer Gold Cards, but accounted for the most Viewers Lite, also known as zappers, with programs such as MSNBC's The News with Brian Williams, Lifetime's Any Day Now, and VH1's Storytellers racking up 41 percent, 47 percent, and 42.2 percent of Viewers Lite minutes, respectively.

Broadcasters contend that if a viewer is watching most of a show, he or she is more interested and so, more likely to be watching the commercial as well. Such data is of particular interest to advertisers, of course, who would like to know how frequently and how attentively viewers watch their ads. Media researchers have been trying to quantify these aspects of viewing since the 1950s. "They reasoned that if people really liked a program and were really interested, they would pay more attention. And chances were that they then paid more attention to the advertising," says Horst Stipp, director of social and development research at NBC. So NBC is using Quad data to show that viewers watching most of NBC shows are more valuable to the advertisers-even if NBC's overall audience numbers are declining.

Kate Lynch, media research director at Starcom, the media buying arm of Leo Burnett, concurs: "There's lots of evidence that those who are more attentive pay closer attention to commercials."

Stipp says that advertisers also value loyalty to the television show: "They told us that they had done studies of loyalty and found that those who were more loyal were also less likely to zap around. So, for example, Seinfeld fans are more likely to see commercials and recall brands."

The cable guys, understandably upset about the study, have a raft of complaints. One is the inadequacy of the sample size: Nielsen's 5,000 metered household sample is already too small to measure smaller networks accurately, but the problem is compounded when the sample is cut in four. Another is the selection of cable programs for analysis. "A major gripe that I have is with their so-called random methodology," says Debbie Reichig, research director at the Comedy Central Channel. "They only selected one show in my network. And it was amovie." Since movies are different every week, attracting different audiences depending upon the title, there was no way the show could rank high in terms of frequency, Reichig says.

Cable programmers also object to the links broadcasters are making between the data, viewer loyalty, and attentiveness. "The link between watching the show and watching the commercial is a big leap," says Tim Brooks, research director at USA Networks. Just because a viewer is loyal to a show and watches most of it doesn't mean that the viewer sits there for the commercials, he notes.

But Paul Lindstrom, a vice president at Nielsen, maintains that the analysis has been misconstrued and that there is plenty of good news in the study for cable. One area of confusion has been the segment labels. Critics note that the name Gold Card has a clear connotation of higher value, even though Lindstrom insists that no Nielsen data supports the notion that watching a program more frequently plays any part in attentiveness. "There's no empirical reason why Gold Card viewers are more valuable than Occasionally Committeds," Lindstrom says. Maybe not. But Nielsen has received so much flak over the nomenclature that it is going to be changed

Lindstrom points out, for example, that cable attracts quite a few Occasionally Committeds-who watch most of a show, like the Gold Cards, just not as often. It's even possible to look at the Gold Cards as couch potatoes. "I can make a very strong case that these viewers are heavy viewers and not particularly selective," says Bob Sieber, research director at Turner Broadcasting Systems. By that token, Occasionally Committeds can be viewed as attentive viewers that have a life, meaning they spend money. They may watch an entire episode of La Femme Nikita or Ally McBeal, but if they have something else to do, such as playing tennis or going to a movie, they won't be home to watch.

Agency people are less worked up over the data, and believe it is but one more research element going into the mix. "I think it's an important first step at getting us closer to commercial analysis," says Starcom's Lynch. While she agrees with Reichig's concerns about the small sample size and show selection, she believes that at this point the various networks will order their own custom analyses that can tweak the data to make it more representative.

Stu Gray, senior vice president, media research services at BBDO New York, doesn't think the data will shift power drastically in favor of broadcast at the upfronts. But, he says, "It will be a selling point."

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