The networks said they would launch an "emerging media and advertising research lab" in conjunction with Mr. Varan, who has spent the last several years testing how TV viewers react to interactive TV, split screens, sponsorships, product placements and the like. Disney intends to open several facilities for tests, including a lab in Austin, Texas.
Quest for data
Like many other media concerns, Disney is on a quest to determine what kinds of commercials and promotions viewers will stick around to watch when they have so much technology at hand that allows them to skip past things that interrupt their entertainment. In Perth, Australia, Mr. Varan recently completed a three-year test of how viewers react to various ads, and used techniques such as measuring biometric responses to determine whether ads and other elements on the TV screen were enticing enough.
Disney has already been forging its own way amid complexities. In February, ABC said it would increase the availability of its programming via video on demand -- so long as the parties who want to distribute programs such as "Grey's Anatomy" and "Ugly Betty" disabled a viewer's ability to fast-forward through the commercials. At the time, the network said it was following up on a trial it unveiled in May in which select ABC prime-time series and ESPN on ABC college-football events were made available to subscribers of Cox Communications' Orange County, Calif., cable system via VOD. In exchange, Cox had to disable the technology that allowed its subscribers in that area to fast-forward past commercials.
Initial research on the Cox trial showed that 93% of people who had their fast-forwarding capabilities removed when watching ABC programs on-demand found having to watch ads an acceptable exchange for getting to see the programs free, ABC said. About 20% of users said they used on-demand to watch an ABC program rather than using a DVR.
Old measures no longer enough
"In today's rapidly changing media environment, we need to go beyond traditional forms of research to ensure an effective connection with our audience," George Bodenheimer, president-ESPN and ABC Sports and co-chair, Disney Media Networks, said in a prepared statement.
One of Mr. Varan's best-known projects is "Beyond :30," a $1 million-a-year project that has been funded by multiple agencies, marketers and media companies, which also include Kellogg, CBS, ESPN, Turner Broadcasting, Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest Group and Omnicom Group's OMD. Test subjects in the project often sit in one of six mock living rooms surrounded by hidden cameras and other gear, which monitor their reactions to on-screen elements.
Mr. Varan and his staff have run more than 6,500 viewing sessions in which members from a panel of more than 3,000 people are subjected to new kinds of TV commercials -- not your standard quick hit, but rather new concepts that demand more concentration and involvement. Some of the tests involve video games superimposed over the ads. Others gauge how the average couch potato might react when pausing a recorded program and seeing an advertiser's logo on screen. Another effort involved news tickers -- much like those on CNBC -- that offer information while ads play.