Cable purveyors continue to be frustrated that broadcast commands higher prices despite declining ratings, so the leading cable networks are digging deeper into non-traditional research to measure values beyond mere audience numbers. Increasingly, such research centers on seemingly fuzzy values such as viewer loyalty, relevance, brand resonance, length of tune-in, involvement, trust and connection.
Media buyers note the numbers of such cable studies are mushrooming, and many of them take a dim view of research not based on pure audience ratings. But cable executives insist that as media continue to fragment and overall TV ratings decline, these values are becoming more crucial in media buying decisions.
Many top cable operations, including MTV Networks and Lifetime Television, have increased their volume of internal and external research to prove their more specialized content sparks a "brand resonance" among viewers, which in turn creates a more impactful environment for ads.
"We began last year measuring the relevance our programming has for viewers, and this year we added `trust,' so we can demonstrate our viewers trust our brands, and therefore advertising on our networks carries more credibility" than other networks, says Betsy Frank, exec VP-research and planning at MTV Networks. MTV commissioned the research from Intermedia Advertising Group, New York.
Several media researchers dispute such logic.
"Brand resonance is a concept that might work in magazines, but it absolutely doesn't apply to ad-supported cable TV, because people are not paying to subscribe to it," says Erwin Ephron, a partner with media researcher Ephron Papazian & Ephron. "Cable TV networks want to put a value on the context they create for advertising, and they want to claim there is greater viewer involvement on specialized networks. They want to say their viewers are more upscale or have special interests. But the only thing that matters is whether the viewer was in the room when the commercial aired, period."
Over time, cable TV is slowly gaining in its share of ad dollars vs. broadcast, but the perennial gap in cost per thousand between cable and broadcast continues.
Cable networks will continue to crank out research dissecting the behavior and attitudes of their viewers because they have few other options in trying to close that CPM gap, says Brad Adgate, senior VP-director of research at Horizon Media, New York.
"Cable networks are saying they deserve larger CPM gains and a bigger boost in ad rates vs. broadcast, but one thing working against them is the fact that they have so much more inventory," Mr. Adgate says. "No matter how you look at it, CPMs come down to supply and demand based on ratings and delivery, and no one will ever pay $2 million for the final episode of a cable TV series."
Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting System doesn't spend time talking about its networks' brand resonance. Instead, it trumpets its "Media at the Millennium" study, which uses the branded T-MAP system to show with Nielsen data how cable networks including TNT and TBS can be substituted for broadcast buys and achieve the same reach and frequency, with money left over due to cable's lower prices.
But Turner is also investing in new ways of measuring consumer purchasing intent generated by integrated media buys and product placements, says Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer.
At Viacom, MTV Networks for the second year in a row tapped Intermedia Advertising Group to measure the relevance of its brands to viewers, as well as their sense of trust and connection, says Ms. Frank. MTV also uses Nielsen ratings data to show its networks can replicate broadcast reach, "but we do it within highly branded, effective [network] environments," she says.
Discovery Networks has doubled the size of its research group from a year ago to create customized data that show "the strength of our environment, along with purchase intent and effectiveness measured on many dimensions," says Beth Rockwood, senior VP-market resources.
Lifetime Television last year commissioned Knowledge Networks/SRI to conduct an extensive measurement of its "resonance" as one of 140 TV networks and household brands, with the goal of proving that Lifetime has a "very desirable environment" for advertisers, says Tim Brooks, exec VP-research at the cable network, a joint venture of Hearst Corp. and Walt Disney Co. The research showed that Lifetime scored very highly among all trusted household brands among women.
This year, Lifetime repeated the survey on a much more limited scale. Using a score based on a variety of factors surrounding community, loyalty, trust and engagement, Lifetime's brand resonance topped the seven brands surveyed with a 65 (out of 100); Discovery Networks' TLC scored 63.9; Unilever's Dove soap, 59.5; Wal-Mart Stores, 57; Turner's TNT, 55.8; NBC Universal's NBC, 55; and Johnson & Johnson, 52.7, says Mr. Brooks. Lifetime says its brand resonance rubs off on commercials aired on the network.
"I understand why [cable networks] do all this research," says Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer for WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia, New York. "But as media buyers we're less interested in the atmosphere of one cable network vs. another and more interested in what type of commercial format works best and why. I think the best research will come when we collaborate with networks in the future to experiment with new forms of advertising and understanding how consumers take in media."