By ABC's estimates, its soaps reach about 57 million people in an average three-month period via the Walt Disney broadcast network as well as its cable outlet, SoapNet, said Brian Frons, president-daytime, Disney ABC Television Group. But a stay-at-home viewer who watches "General Hospital" at 3 p.m ET, its regularly scheduled time, might be quite different from a working person who watches it at 10 p.m. on cable (not to mention one who records it on a DVR to watch later). "We now have so many different bites at the apple," Mr. Frons said.
All those bites are enough to give some advertisers indigestion. While 57 million is a number big enough to whet any marketer's appetite, tracking the subsets of that larger whole remains a daunting task. Measuring audiences is no longer just a game of counting the masses, because advertisers want to dig deeper and understand the behavior of the smaller audiences that flock to different kinds of viewing. How does the nighttime viewer of soap operas on cable differ from the person who records the show for skip-stop watching?
"With the amount of fragmentation that is created both in terms of channels as well as the different formats by which advertising is being delivered, it is putting pressure on traditional audience and measurement services," said George Shababb, chief operating officer of TNS Media Research.
So it's time for a poke at those so-called eyeballs. Mass is one measure but no longer the only one. Measurement experts believe being able to tap into audience-behavior data from set-top boxes distributed by cable, satellite and telecommunications providers will help better define those eyeballs and what makes them act the way they do. It's one thing to know that an unrated digital-cable channel can reach a few million homes; it's quite another to learn what times during specific broadcasts viewers in a particular ZIP code leave the channel to surf elsewhere -- and what programming lures them away.
Already Starcom USA has said it will negotiate only with unrated digital cable channels that can offer some level of "quantitative metrics," which could include set-top-box data. TNS has unveiled a new service, known as TNS DirecTView, that studies 100,000 DirecTV subscribers and their granular viewing habits. Not to be outdone, Nielsen has said it intends to provide clients with set-top-box data by the second quarter of 2008. TiVo is also making set-top-box data available.
As viewership data becomes more finely calibrated, other measures will attempt to move things beyond reach and exposure. Thanks to more consumers using interactive media such as cellphones and computers -- and with interactive TV seen as more of a reality -- advertisers will want to measure whether consumers respond to programs and promotions, said Paul Donato, Nielsen's chief research officer.
Exposure, long the holy grail when mass was the main measure of ad effectiveness, will have to be mixed in with the response of consumers who see a commercial message, he said. Consumers who vote for a singer on "American Idol" or pass clues back and forth from their favorite mystery show might be seen as more valuable than those who simply sit and stare or jump from channel to channel.
TV still may "rest on a foundation of 'How many people were exposed to my creative?'" he said. At the same time, there are "qualities of eyeballs and various engagement measures that have been developed that are useful to identifying whether some exposures have higher qualities than others."
Going it alone
Some agencies aren't waiting for a standardized measure to develop. At MediaVest, buyers already are trying to measure consumer intent, said Jim Kite, president-connections, research and analytics at MediaVest. Tracking studies ask consumers whether they recall an ad and whether it prompted them to seek out more information, go to a website, order a brochure, tell a friend or make a purchase, among other things. The firm also tries to determine which media had the most power in influencing or changing consumer behavior.
Measuring simple exposure "is really just a beginning," Mr. Kite said. "What do they do after they've been exposed? That's the most important thing."