Too early to to think in minutes

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A few months ago, Nielsen announced that from October next year it will make minute-by-minute audience data available for all national programming sources. This service will include "flags" to indicate minutes of programming that contain commercials.

On the surface, this sounds a very exciting development on the journey to accountable commercial audience metrics. But before we get too excited, the availability of minute-by-minute data (in addition to program averages) is actually something not that new. Minute-level ratings have been available to us for the past five years through Nielsen's NPower system, and agencies like Universal McCann have been using this tool since its inception to make tactical buying decisions. What is new, however, is Nielsen's willingness to allow the data to be shared with third-party processors expert at developing user-friendly tools.

Even with more accessible tools and the "flags," the industry must be clear that minute-by-minute ratings are not the same as commercial ratings, nor are they a proven surrogate of commercial audience reporting. As the custodian of our clients' investments in the TV medium, we cannot join any minute-by-minute bandwagon, as what is being offered does not fairly or accurately measure viewer commercial eyeballs, let alone viewer effect.

caveat emptor

The whole issue of "minute-by-minute ratings equals commercial ratings" is clearly a case of caveat emptor because, unfortunately, commercials do not neatly start and end at the minute. In reality, many minutes within a show have a mix of programming and commercials, or commercials and promotions. Moreover, local commercials are not being "flagged" so numerous minutes that Nielsen designates as "programming only" actually contain commercials.

To prove the point, on Monday, Aug. 23, our colleagues at Magna carefully watched the whole NBC Olympics broadcast and timed all programming and commercial segments (including local commercials). The table on this page shows just a 25-minute proportion of a typical telecast.

From this illustration of actual programming content by minute, we can see the danger of using this new metric as the indicative commercial audience. Across this period, not one national commercial break fell totally inside a "commercial minute," while several minutes of commercials (national or local) would not have been flagged at all.

Away from the reporting issue, there is the more obvious concern of the way people watch TV, constantly zapping between channels. In fact, the whole concept of minute by minute is basically designed for a TV world where the average household only had a handful of viewing options, and few people had remote-control capability.

Yet another monkey wrench is that Nielsen's minute data will include VCR recording. Since VCR recording is a constant, and will be included to the same degree for program and commercial ratings, getting a true indication of the fall-off in viewing levels from the program to minutes that contain commercials will be impossible.

Nielsen has sensibly not gone on record saying that minute-by-minute ratings provide commercial ratings or a surrogate for them. That said, despite few in the industry yet subscribing, there is already speculation in some industry circles that this will become the currency of audience measurement for the 2006 upfront. This will not happen. The industry would need enough trend-worthy data to determine whether minute data is projectionable, without which the networks would never provide audience guarantees.

little incentive for overhaul

That aside, the real danger with the perception that minute-by-minute ratings are acceptable commercial ratings is that we will end up being further away from what we really need. If the industry goes ahead and accepts this solution, rather than pressing for real commercial ratings, Nielsen will have little incentive to overhaul its reporting systems.

This is the real concern of this agency and those that make up the Magna group. Elsewhere in the world there are strident efforts from all interested parties to use data-processing technology to estimate as close as possible commercial audiences. We must keep our eye on the prize and the re-release of minute-by-minute ratings is a mere distraction.

In the final analysis we just cannot be sure whether minute-by-minute ratings are not only better than we have now, but are sufficiently close to the real thing so that they can be used as a trading currency.

There is one research development that could help resolve this issue soon. Recently the American Association of Advertising Agencies' Media Research Committee and the Association of National Advertisers sponsored a Nielsen study looking at 30-second persistence levels. This should shed light on the level of reporting interval required to get to a feasible but also near exact measure of commercial audiences.

The data will be made available in March. If comparisons with minute ratings show a correlation both in audience size and falloff from the program to segments containing commercials, then we should consider minute-by-minute data in a far more favorable light.

Until the results of this study are known, it is far too early to even comment as to whether we are with minute-by-minute ratings any closer to what the industry deserves-a trading currency that properly reflects the value of the product our clients invest so much money in.


Jim Kite is global research director and deputy regional director for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Universal McCann, London. He joined in 1997 from British Sky Broadcasting where he had been head of research for five years.

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