One of the more ambitious proposals migrating across the pond is one that would change our broadcast ratings. "Rating television programs by the hour or half-hour is so imprecise," says Charles Courtier, who once worked in London as the managing director of the region encompassing Europe, Middle East and Africa of Media Edge and is now global CEO of WPP Group's Mediaedge:CIA in New York. "We should really consider ratings that measure audience viewership minute by minute."
Minute by minute ratings, counting how many eyeballs are glued to programs and commercials every 60 seconds, is the way it's been done in the U.K., says Mr. Courtier, and should be the way it's done here.
Why? The argument goes: Viewers shift their attention so often during hour and half-hour segments that an advertiser who pays for a program with a 10 rating may be getting only a 3 rating when its spots actually air.
Of the six countries he's worked in, the U.S. is "the only country ... where minute by minute ratings are not done," says another Brit ad expat, Andrew Green, director of strategic insights at Omnicom Group's OMD USA, and formerly regional managing director of Zenith Media, Bangkok. "Only the U.S. and perhaps Canada negotiate according to program ratings."
Although the idea sounds simple, logical and relatively harmless, it could actually be a disruptive move-in other words, something that could radically reshape the media business. Especially when minute by minute ratings focus in on how many viewers are actually watching spots or clusters of spots, known in the business as pods.
"No one wants to do that, particularly at networks, because it would show how much tune-out there is to commercials," says a media executive who requested anonymity.
"It would create a big upheaval," says Mr. Green. "Minute by minute is more accurate, but think of the nightmare in terms of manpower and storage."
Indeed, media agency executives suggest that media owners would be reluctant to use minute by minute ratings because they could end up providing more make-goods should their programs not deliver all their numbers.
After testing both methods, says David Poltrack, exec VP-research and planning at Viacom's CBS, "We found that there was not a significant difference between the commercial or minute rating compared to the program rating. The pattern tended to be very consistent from show to show. We came to the conclusion that you didn't get any new, reliable information and that essentially you would buy the same way you would buy it with program ratings, except you'd have higher [costs per thousand], of course, because commercial ratings are generally 5% to 10% lower than prime-time program ratings.
"For all of the complexity that it involves," Mr. Poltrack says, "[CBS concluded] it would not reveal any significant, reliable and consistent positions from one program to another. ... I'm not against it. I still have to be shown where the value is."
"We use minute by minute data for show trends to see if a show is holding its audience, for evaluations and things like that,"says Marianne Gambelli, exec VP-TV network sales at General Electric Co.'s NBC. "But I'm not sure in absolute terms if it has any more value then what we do with it now. We have not reached a sales position with it yet because our research department is still looking into the viability of that."
On the other hand, minute by minute ratings also may create a windfall for media owners. "If the networks started to sell on minute by minute data, they'd raise their prices," says Steve Sternberg, senior VP-director of audience analysis at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Magna Global. "They'd start selling like magazines."
Some magazines sell ad pages on a sliding scale depending on their position in each book, with premium pages, generally in the well-thumbed forward sections, selling for premium prices. U.S. TV in general doesn't work on a sliding scale for programs. Advertising is sold based on the ratings of the entire show except for the Super Bowl, Olympics and Academy Awards, where ad time is priced according to the different periods within the program.
Overall, most TV programs, like magazines, capture a larger number of viewers in forward positions, lose them through the middle and may regain them toward the end, as viewers hop from one program and network to another. Media companies compensate for this unequal distribution by rotating advertisers each week through all periods of each show.
Media agencies thus are in the business of monitoring programs to make sure their clients' spots are fully rotated. Also, they watch to make sure their ads are rotated fairly through each pod. In pods, the ads that appear first and last are, once again, generally seen by more viewers than those in the middle.
Nielsen Media Research currently measures audiences by the minute in the U.S. with a service called Npower, but the information isn't used for buying and selling. Rather, it's used for research purposes, monitoring audience viewing habits, tracking audience turnover, and feeding data into optimizers and modeling.
"We do special studies with that information," says Magna Global's Mr. Sternberg. "But we don't use it for buying and selling."
"It is all academic at this point," says Joe Abruzzo, exec VP-director of marketing and media research at Mediaedge:CIA, who has used minute by minute analysis to determine audience turnover for programs. "We have this knowledge now, but media owners would have to change the way they do business in order to use it for buying and selling, and I don't think they are equipped to do it."
"When you do projections about how programs are going to perform, you can never project how individual minutes will perform in a program," says Mr. Sternberg. "And the networks don't sell it that way ... I don't see a major need to start analyzing on a pre-buy basis on an individual minute."
Media owners say Nielsen's Npower is an expensive service. A spokesman at Nielsen says there are only nine customers using it.
In order to adopt the minute by minute rating, "media owners would have to climb on board," says Dave Thomas, senior VP-strategy and development at Nielsen, noting there would have to be a consensus to charge for media by the minute.
Agency buyers would have to become as sophisticated and informed as their research colleagues. "From a buying perspective they are assessing a much wider array of programming choices," Mr. Thomas says. "The onus would be on the buying departments to afford that level of precision in the analysis process."
In short, minute by minute ratings could change "the fundamental negotiation process," Mr. Thomas says. "It is conceivable that there are already discussions going on about specific placement in programs."
Meanwhile, Nielsen has moved forward in the minute by minute world with a new service called Grabix, which shows ratings right next to actual program images. It identifies different demographics watching each frame of every show and also reveals where audiences are tuning in from other networks, and where they are going.
FOLLOW THE DEMO VIEWING
"You see a block of women 18 to 34 that suddenly tunes in to the show, and you want to know where they came from, from another show or did they just turn on the TV?" says Mike Hudak, senior VP-marketing at Nielsen. "And when they leave, you can find out where they went, to another program or did they just turn off the set."
The service allows advertisers to see exactly how many viewers are watching programs when their brands appear as product placement, thus making it possible to determine pricing precisely. "You can see how well or poorly your product did within the program," says Mr. Hudak. Unfortunately, Grabix is only available to networks, a policy that Mr. Hudak says Nielsen is looking into changing.
"We're not allowed to buy it without permission of the TV stations," Mr. Green says of the current policy. OMD used Grabix, with permission of CBS, to count eyeballs for product placement of Frito-Lay's Doritos and other client brands in "Survivor."
"And that is another reason why we should be using minute by minute ratings," Mr. Green says. "To give a value to product placement."