NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Imagine a day when the top 10 TV shows include cult hits such as "Chuck," "Better Off Ted" and "Heroes," but not monoliths such as "American Idol," "NCIS" or "Dancing With the Stars." Actually, you don't have to imagine it at all, because that day has arrived.
When it comes to engagement, or a show's ability to command attention from viewers, "Ted" (3.4 million viewers) trumps "Idol" (average viewership of 50 million across two shows each week). According to Nielsen IAG, the most "engaging" show on TV is ABC's "Lost," followed by "The Middle," also on the Disney network. Tied for third this season, as of April 19, are ABC's "Brothers & Sisters"; NBC's "Chuck"; ABC's "Desperate Housewives"; NBC's "Heroes"; and CBS's "Rules of Engagement" and "The Amazing Race." Rounding out the list are Fox's "24," ABC's "Ted," NBC's "Parenthood," and CBS's "Survivor" and "The Big Bang Theory."
TV and ad executives might scoff, and rightfully so. How can anyone ignore "American Idol" or "Sunday Night Football"?
Such rankings turn the TV model -- in which success comes from attracting the broadest audiences possible at a single moment -- on its ear. Yet as TV outlets start to rely more on viewership that comes from DVR playback, iPhone, iPod and iPad viewing and online streaming, figuring out which shows drive fans to seek them out and watch them no matter where they run is an exercise that's gaining considerable traction.
New industry model?
Determining which shows engage viewers the most is "something that is increasingly important," said Sam Armando, senior VP-director of strategic intelligence at SMGX, a unit of Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest Group. Viewers who pay attention are more likely to follow a program more closely -- and, the theory goes, the commercials that support it.
For decades, advertisers have flocked to those TV shows that are considered the "most-watched," or bring in the greatest number of viewers. Even in these days of so-called "commercial ratings ," in which marketers pay for viewership of commercials, not the show, the most-watched shows inevitably lead to the most-watched ads. To shift to another measure would be tantamount to yanking out the foundation of a house while the structure still rests atop it.
"Just measuring the number of eyeballs in front of a television set is hard enough without trying to measure the intensity of those eyeballs doing the viewing," said Jeff McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University, Greencastle, Ind. "Collecting television ratings has always been a rather gross process, and that won't be changed easily. If a move is made in this direction, the ramifications for the TV industry would be quite negative," he said, with advertisers using the smaller crowds attending each show to "deflate the costs of ad buys accordingly."
Yet, as TV audiences start to splinter around any number of new viewing opportunities, there's increased interest in finding those programs that command the most attention from the viewers who tune in -- no matter how large their number may be.
An "engagement" measure "will never replace the fundamental ratings ," but it will definitely have a place in the mix, said Alan Wurtzel, president-research and media development at NBC Universal.
What NBC's doing
Nielsen IAG's rankings -- which come from examining viewer recollection of and reaction to programs, product placements, promotions and commercials -- have already been the basis for ad pacts. In 2006, NBC struck a deal with Toyota Motor under which the network had to prove viewers paid attention to and could remember details about a TV show. If the shows didn't meet a previously agreed upon level of "engagement," Toyota would receive extra ad time, also known as a "make good," or have ads placed against shows that spurred higher levels of attention.
While "stable" and "valuable," the IAG measure should not be used as a sole criteria by advertisers, said David Poltrack, chief research officer at CBS Corp., as it can vary depending on the type of show being watched and the questions IAG panel respondents must answer.
Engagement levels also don't appear to predict success in all cases. While five programs that made the IAG most-engaging list for the 2008-2009 season also appear in the one measuring the 2009-2010 season to date, where's CW's "Reaper," which was the top of last season's list? Or CBS's "Harper's Island" or "Worst Week," all of which have been canceled?
Perhaps the goal in future times will be to have a show that is both widely viewed and highly engaging. If that were the case, "Desperate Housewives" and "Big Bang Theory" would hit the sweet spot -- they appear on both the "most engaged" and "most watched" lists.