TV Upfront

Engagement catches on as upfront flavor of the month

Debate turns firestorm; the bad news is metrics aren't yet sophisticated

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The cable tv upfront traditionally has been negotiated by eager media buyers armed with calculators and spreadsheets. Stick in a couple formulas, and one was well on their way to allocating their client's much-pursued dollars.

Yet, the media math of yesteryear is having a tough time holding up in the media world of today. Enter the era of engagement.

It's a concept that many in cable laud but no one can explain with the clarity of such well-worn terms as GRP and CPM. The goal is to go beyond the number of bodies gazing at the tube and tout how "engaged" those viewers are with the programs and/or the commercials that pay for them.

So far, engagement has ruled the run-up to upfront negotiations for cable's 2006-07 season. While countless cable networks, agencies and research organizations have tried to come up with a formula to define the concept, engagement remains a point of intense discussion for everyone involved.

"I have to admit I have been pretty amused by all these networks coming out with their own measurements for engagement," says Steve Gigliotti, exec VP-advertising sales and emerging media at Scripps Networks, one of several interested cable operations that have conducted studies on the topic.

"There is simply not a simple metric for it. It's not like calculating a CPM," he says. "If I was a media buyer, I would be extremely cautious of the metrics that media companies are throwing out there."

The rules of engagement are far from defined. Yet, agencies and cable networks have banded together to explore the subject at a crucial time in which they must prove TV's value in the overall media marketplace.

As different forms of media increasingly tout their actual return-on-investment figures, the cable industry is desperate to retain its position in the media hierarchy.

"The concept of engagement has opened up a whole new form of dialogue," says Sam Armando, VP-director of broadcast research at Starcom USA, Chicago. "We are always looking for ways to expand our understanding of the concept and take the necessary next steps."

It was just over a year ago that the engagement craze kicked off with a series of deals inked by Court TV with agencies including Starcom, Mediaedge:cia, Carat and Magna Global; the pacts actually guaranteed a certain level of viewer engagement as defined by each agency. Soon after, The Weather Channel partnered with MediaVest, jumping on the engagement bandwagon with their own ad retention and recall study and minute-by-minute ratings analysis.

Since then, various research organizations have joined the pursuit for the magic formula of engagement. Nielsen Media Research recently began studying a special panel of people-meter households to measure engagement of broadcast and cable programs and commercials. A TV industry task force known as M14 is also aiming for a working definition of engagement. IAG Research has made engagement the core focus of its measurement of TV programming, advertising and product placement.

"This is all about clients and agencies getting smarter about where best to spend their money, whether they are looking at engagement, clutter or pod positioning," says Joe Abruzzese, president-advertising sales at Discovery Networks U.S. "But the fact is that the metrics surrounding engagement are simply not sophisticated as they should be as of yet. Everyone seems to have their own studies and methodology but nothing substantial or concrete."

leery from ambiguity

The ambiguity about the metrics and methodology of engagement makes many on both sides of the negotiation table leery about putting too much emphasis on the idea, though nearly all agree that attempts at a universal definition are a step in the right direction.

"The bottom line is that advertisers want to know if their :30 commercial is actually being seen," says Mr. Gigliotti, whose company's cable outlets include HGTV and Food Network. "They are paying a lot of money to create these commercials and spending a lot of money to place them. I would say that engagement is a middle piece to look at, but the end piece is finding out if your commercial is actually working."

"A consumer may be engaged in a program, but that might not have any bearing on the decision for the viewer to actually buy the product," adds Rene Huey-Lipton, VP-director of marketplace placement for GSD&M, Austin, Texas, which unveiled its own engagement-based study just over six months ago.

"Our Involve study is our approach for identifying the actual consumer context to help decide what we need to say at the right time and in the right places. The study greatly affected the plans we had in place for some of our clients, including BMW, Wal-Mart and Chili's."

weighed down with data

Media insiders say that virtually every agency and cable network is proceeding into the upfront armed with engagement facts and figures. The Weather Channel this week is announcing a partnership with ZenithOptimedia for a second-quarter 2006 engagement study to measure viewer attentiveness in various programs on various cable networks. The Weather Channel is funding the study, with results available six to eight weeks after the research is complete.

"Our goal is to continue this study with every major agency out there," says Liz Janneman, senior VP-ad sales at TWC. "We are out here spending several hundred thousand dollars to prove that the ads that air on The Weather Channel are seen and remembered."

And while engagement is certainly an issue to discuss in this year's cable upfront, executives agree it's far from the Holy Grail. "A concept such as engagement might break a tie but will not dictate a buy," Mr. Armando says.

And don't assume that all buyers have latched onto this year's upfront buzzword. "Engagement is the new flavor of the month," says Ira Berger, cable buyer at Richards Group, Dallas. "Look back and you will see that every cable upfront in the past five years has attached itself to some sort of issue. In terms of engagement, I would venture to say that it is not even about the show that your spot airs in but rather what commercial precedes yours in the break."

A year after Court TV's initial engagement deals, Starcom's Mr. Armando says it "went very well and was well-received with our clients."

Make-goods were provided for any shortfalls in promised engagement levels, though he wouldn't specify whether there actually were shortfalls.

While buzzwords and media trends have come and gone, nearly everyone agrees that the idea of engagement is here to stay.

"We might come up with different, bigger words in the future, but it still comes down to how effective the commercial is with the viewer," concludes Mr. Armando.

Mr. Gigliotti argues: "Exploring this particular subject is critical to the success of our industry."
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