MTV Plots Comeback After New Currency Guts Ratings

Net Gets More Aggressive With Ad Programming, Branded Entertainment

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NEW YORK -- MTV is well aware of the tumble its ratings took going into last year's upfront sales, so for 2008, the cable network built on music videos has resolved to make sure viewers interact with brands in every way possible.
The MTV sales team is experimenting with ways to up engagement outside ad breaks.
The MTV sales team is experimenting with ways to up engagement outside ad breaks. Credit: Scott Gries

Nielsen's commercial ratings currency -- which counts how many viewers stay tuned during the ad breaks rather than how many watch the programs -- wasn't exactly kind to MTV, which lost an average of 13% to 15% of viewers during ad breaks, while most broadcast networks were able to keep losses between 8% and 10%.

MTV delayed adopting the commercial metric this fall but soon will begin to sell using the tougher ratings. And it will count on its earlier branded-entertainment efforts -- from product integration (Herbal Essences' trip to the Video Music Awards) to multi-episode commercials within ad breaks (American Eagle's "It's A Mall World") to an entire series produced around a brand (Unilever's "Gamekillers" for Axe body spray) -- to persuade marketers to stick around.

Between the breaks
The broadcast networks can deliver higher commercial retention among MTV's core demo of 18- to 34-year-olds, so the cabler needs to persuade marketers to sign on for its experimental partnerships, in the hope that together they will find ways to increase ad engagement in places other than commercial breaks.

For some buyers who negotiated ad deals on commercial ratings for this season, reaching 85% of an audience during a commercial break on MTV could be more efficient than paying more for the 92% who stick around during a broadcast ad break, especially if a larger share of those broadcast viewers are ignoring the ads.

"I might not necessarily get more people to watch an MTV show, but I might get a hell of a lot more people to watch my commercial if I do something inside that break that's interesting," said one major media buyer who worked with MTV on integrated deals last year.

Tim Rosta, MTV's exec VP-integrated marketing, sees that attitude as his network's strength. "What is scaleable anymore? We understand objectively, if you need a customized show or a special ad, you actually need someone to help you navigate the platforms."

Recent gains
A year ago, MTV's ratings were slumping in comparison with its competitors and even sister networks VH1 and Comedy Central. But the fourth quarter found MTV in the midst of a comeback with some of its programs. Ratings were up 23% for this year's VMAs; "The Hills" and "A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila" attracted an average of 6 million viewers apiece.

While MTV officially converts from program ratings to C3 (which measures how many people view commercial breaks live or within three days on a DVR) this quarter, the accountability marketers seek elsewhere isn't what MTV's sales execs are emphasizing. "C3 is really just a metric," said Dan Lovinger, senior VP of MTV brand sales. "The connection between what people pay us for and what they want to be part of is what we're after."

Increasingly, more brand managers are willing to experiment with new ad formats, as networks such as the CW have shown with its "CW Now" integration ad model and "Cwickie" content-wrapped commercial pods. Brian Terkelsen, exec VP of MediaVest branded-entertainment group Connectivetissue, said the overall conversation has evolved from "Get me some of that innovation stuff" to "Prove it's doing something for me," and MTV has been one of the few networks to do the latter for his clients.
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