Minute-by-Minute Ratings Data for Commercials Don't Tell Whole Story

Magna Global Study: Rounded-up Measures Include Promos, Local Ads

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Those minute-by-minute ratings media buyers have been clamoring for? Forget about it. Magna Global, the media unit of Interpublic Group of Cos., has conducted one of the most exhaustive studies of TV commercial pods, looking at how breaks are scheduled and what factors affect viewership. Magna's findings, sent to clients this month, are likely to have a major impact on purchasing decisions in this year's upfront.
Magna Global's study findings are likely to have a major impact on this year's upfront.
Magna Global's study findings are likely to have a major impact on this year's upfront.

"The purpose of the study was not to talk tough with the networks, but to determine whether minute-by-minute data should be used as currency," said Steve Sternberg, exec VP-director of audience analysis at Magna. "We're seeing a lot of instability over when pods are scheduled and program times, which makes it difficult to do that."

Data down to the second
That's not to say Magna isn't in favor of commercial ratings; it is, but research chief Mr. Sternberg says Nielsen should provide data down to the second so agencies can see exactly how each commercial performed. The minute-by-minute data, which Nielsen has not released to the press, rounds up a rating for each minute that might carry a show promotion or a local ad in addition to the national spot buyers are looking to track.

"Since last year's study, we and others have been pressing Nielsen to measure commercial-pod audiences. Whether this initially takes the form of actual commercial-pod ratings or simply a single average commercial rating for each show to compare with its total telecast rating, it would be a major step forward," Mr. Sternberg said. "We, of course, would need the commercial rating for 'live,' and 'live-plus-seven-days,' which would give us some indication of commercial avoidance due to DVR playback."

Commercial-pod ratings were found to be affected by any number of factors, including whether the show rates highly, the show's genre, where the pod airs in the show and how many commercials are in each pod. Often times, the specifics of those factors seem to shift randomly.

"When you look at programs month by month, you'll see commercial-pod changes. I always thought the producers were pretty set in their ways for each program and were told there are breaks here and there, but it varies from episode to episode," Mr. Sternberg said. "There can be five minutes or 13 minutes before the commercials. Perhaps the networks are experimenting with different lengths to see what's better for program ratings."

Nielsen Media Research's minute-by-minute ratings do not designate local commercial time or network promos. Mr. Sternberg's research matched the program database to Nielsen's NPower minute-by-minute ratings and calculated audience levels for all program segments and commercial pods manually.

Gauging relative performance
To gauge the relative performance of the broadcast networks and cable channels, Mr. Sternberg created a commercial-pod index to measure the drop-off in viewers between the program and a break. On average, broadcast networks showed a 7% fall in viewing, while cable experienced an 11% drop. CBS, however, performed slightly better than average with a 95 index, against the six-network average of 93. In cable, Court TV (96), Bravo (94) and Fox News (93) all outperformed the industry average.

The Magna research team took six months, tracking 60 programs across broadcast TV and cable, and analyzed the pods between November 2005 and February 2006. Next year's study will also look at syndicated programming.

"There are any number of things we can use here to negotiate," said Larry Blasius, Magna's exec VP-director of negotiations. "Cable networks are sliding a lot of promos into the 'A' position [the first commercial in a break]. This study gives us a better idea of who's retaining the audience." Across the programs selected in the cable report, promos filled more than half of all commercial 'A' positions.

While broadcast networks rarely guarantee pod positioning, 'A' positions are highly sought after since they tend to earn ratings that are 2% higher than the entire pod. "If I want A's and I'm getting B's or maybe C's, that is one of many factors we consider," Mr. Blasius said of negotiations. "We look at who's doing the best scheduling of commercials."

The DVR effect
Magna Global's report also quantifies the impact of digital video recorders on ratings of both programs and commercials. The research found that while DVR households are watching more TV and commercials, 75% of commercials are skipped during playback.

"We looked at the effect of DVRs really as an afterthought," Mr. Sternberg said. "Four percent of the [national TV] sample are DVR homes. Right now the commercial pod index is 93. The index is 92 if you look at live-plus-seven-day viewership, so 4% of the sample is causing a 1% difference. The Nielsen sample is going to mirror the population next year to represent 18% of the population. We're predicting that 92 index becomes 87, which is 13% lower than the programming."

That potential change is at the heart of the battle over whether the additional ratings generated by viewers watching in playback up to seven days after the original broadcast ought to be paid for by advertisers. Media agencies have argued that ads will be worthless if they're skipped.

Among the other findings from the study are the amount of commercials and promos carried by each network. Perhaps unsurprisingly given its popular shows this season, ABC had the longest commercial pods and also had the most minutes of programming before the first commercial pod. "Desperate Housewives," for instance, carried 18 minutes and 10 seconds of total commercial and programming time. Both of these factors are important to buyers as they have an effect on commercial ratings. Longer pods tend to lose more viewers, as do dramas that have more time before the first break. Meanwhile reality shows with the most time before the first commercial had a higher index, meaning more people were viewing the ad spots.
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