What's Your Definition of a Hit TV Show?

Viewpoint: Mitch Burg, President, Syndicated Network Television Association

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Mitch Burg
Mitch Burg
A recent industry survey found that media professionals thought that there would be only one new "hit" this broadcast TV season. While this shocking statement may seem like a dire prediction for a mediocre year, it really raises a larger question: What defines a hit?

Few would disagree that having a large audience is one criterion for a hit. Some may remember when large audiences used to mean double-digit ratings. And sadly, fewer remember that there was even a time when a "2" was the first number in those ratings. While those days may be best remembered by media execs sitting on their rockers, audiences are now described in "millions," a somewhat painful attempt to make something that is smaller seem larger. After all, it's in millions! These days, events like the Super Bowl and a limited number of telecasts throughout the year are the only times we see really large audiences.

"Critical acclaim" is another measure of a hit. We're all familiar with these shows that reporters seem to love. These programs start the year with fanfare, tweets and buzz, but they frequently have difficulty attracting a big enough audience to survive. From a program-quality perspective, these shows can be subjectively good and sometimes just good enough. We are often told that they are more important than we realize, especially in April, as "forces" are marshaled to save this critically acclaimed program from cancellation.

Sadly, the "time-period winner," a show that retains the audience from the previous unremarkably performing program or delivers the best performance within a genre or distribution mode, is billed as a hit. Kind of a personal best from the previously inept.

And this year the definition of a "hit" will expand to include No. 1 in profitability. While we all agree that this is a standard to which we should all aspire, the question is, how does this new type of "hit" program help marketers achieve their goals?

Don't despair; there are numerous research studies that show that TV remains the best way to positively affect sales. As with all successful enterprises, TV continues to change and with it, our collective mind-set needs to embrace that movement rather than languishing in the past.

For marketers, today's hit program needs to be more personal. It should be important to the viewer, add credibility to the ad message and have a commercial audience significant enough to matter. While current syndicated research, to some degree, measures audience size, other tools are required to understand the personal importance and credibility that today's hit program can offer.

If a show is important, the viewer will not want to miss it. This importance can be measured quantitatively by the frequency of viewership across a month for shows airing once a week and across a week for strip programming.

Delayed viewership can also be an indicator of a program's importance. The challenge for marketers is to gain exposure of their messages during playback of the program. DVR recording of these programs for later playback includes the conundrum that commercials are more likely than not to be skipped during playback. Legal web access to programming includes insignificant audiences and few commercial opportunities while illegal downloads of programming are generally commercial free. Great for the viewer, not good for the marketer.

One place that marketers can start looking for their own "hits" is through qualitative research that measures viewer attitudes towards TV programming and its stars. The E-Poll Market Research E-Score study indicates which stars engender trust, influence, even trendsetting and stylishness. The sample base is robust enough that it can be segmented demographically as well as geographically. It's no surprise that Oprah and Tom Brokaw are among TV's most influential personalities. For young adults, Oprah ranks No. 1, while viewers are split on the most influential newscaster. Young men tend to find Brokaw more influential and young women are more swayed by Anderson Cooper.

Taking a fresh look at it, there are plenty of "hits" on TV today. More people are watching TV than ever before, and TV continues to be proven successful for marketers in generating positive sales. It's time to embrace the change from the diminishing raw numbers of gender/age descriptors that are less relevant to true targeting of marketing messages. Instead, marketer-defined "hits" will deliver brand-specific relevant attributes with enough audience to produce results for the brand.

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