Upfront Metric of Choice: Engagement?

'E-word' Has Many Definitions, but Networks Want to Make Sure They Get Credit for Keeping Viewers Tuned In

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The 2007 upfront season has agencies and cable networks haggling to determine the currency by which inventory will be sold.
'You can't just look at a premiere on air anymore. That's just a percentage of the overall viewing of that content,' says Jeff Gaspin, NBC Universal's president of cable entertainment, digital content and cross-network strategy.
'You can't just look at a premiere on air anymore. That's just a percentage of the overall viewing of that content,' says Jeff Gaspin, NBC Universal's president of cable entertainment, digital content and cross-network strategy.

With Nielsen's new commercial ratings not available till May 31 -- and both the agencies and the networks still uncertain whether they want program- or brand-specific ratings (something that's in demand but not yet available) -- it looks like engagement, something Nielsen doesn't measure, could be the most agreeable metric on the table this year. But with cablers scrambling to come up with their own methods of pod engagement, the "e-word" has become so broad that even that is a gray area, and agencies could end up negotiating different metrics with every network.

"Engagement has its own variety of definitions this year more than any," says Natalie Conway, senior VP-director of broadcast for Starcom USA. "We'll do some deals based on exact minutes [of the program], we'll do some based on commercial averages [minute-by-minute ratings]. There's not going to be a consensus [on currency]; it's going to be piecemeal. But we want to show increased accountability with our clients."

"You can't just look at a premiere on air anymore. That's just a percentage of the overall viewing of that content," says Jeff Gaspin, NBC Universal's president of cable entertainment, digital content and cross-network strategy. "Whether it's repurposed online or downloaded on wireless, that's the direction the viewership's headed."

'Showstoppers' for fickle crowd
MTV Networks has successfully engaged its coveted audience of 12- to 24-year-olds across its many digital platforms, but the cable waters have become trickier to navigate as the viewers have gotten more fickle. Tom Calderone, exec VP-general manager at VH1, began talking about this problem with clients and agencies after last year's upfront, seeking to take a lead on the commercial-engagement front. "We knew we couldn't do it [alone], so we had to figure out together what would work," he says.

To that end, Mr. Calderone and his team came up with "Showstoppers," a block of programming interwoven with 30-second commercials that makes ads a more natural extension of the show. Rather than airing one continuous three- or five-minute pod, the network filmed extra segments for shows such as "Hogan Knows Best" and "Best Week Ever" in February to insert between each ad.

Based on early focus-group feedback, the experiment has been a success, according to MTV Networks. "It's a new way to watch TV," says Colleen Fahey-Rush, exec VP-research. "It was a really great opportunity to do some consumer research on commercial-pod treatment. The advertisers really appreciated learning along with us."

Broadcast market feels squeeze
As the pressure to keep viewers tuned in becomes a greater point of negotiation for this year's upfront, the pressure to move toward commercial ratings will be felt more on the broadcast side. "We're hurt the least by commercial ratings," says Joe Abruzzese, president-ad sales for Discovery Communications. "If ABC moves 'Desperate Housewives' to a different night, that's like getting a whole new show. We could easily do program engagement over (brand-specific) commercial engagement, but I can't guarantee how good the advertiser's creative is."

Starcom cut three cable upfront deals based on its own commercial ratings and was the first to execute an engagement deal in the upfront when it did one with Court TV in 2005.

Starcom plans to lead the pack in mobile and internet TV spending this year.

"It's becoming a complex transaction as more things are involved in the dialogue," says Chris Boothe, exec VP-activation at Starcom. "We anticipate taking engagement a couple steps further as we venture off into a new upfront."
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