Live TV is ready for its closeup

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Best practice, even when no longer best, has a fantasy life of its own. The coming TV upfront is an example. The fantasy is in the way we still obsess about programs and try to handicap the new TV season.

That's "Sunset Boulevard," homage to the Ghost of Network Past. Worse, it's a costly study in agency make-work, inaccuracy and irrelevance, when we're hard-pressed to fund essentials. It's make-work because the schedules are largely make-believe. Inaccurate because amateur judgment is not the best tool for picking winners. Irrelevant because picking winners is not what TV buying is about.

TV buying is procurement. If you don't believe me, try to explain to your client's purchasing department why you paid double the average CPM to be on a high-rated show. They are right to be skeptical. High ratings are not where the value is.

With today's growing levels of commercial avoidance, the buyer's aim, above all else, should be to find programs that deliver the client's message to viewers who are paying attention. The buying goal is not picking hot programs, it's buying TV that's likely to get the ad message seen. And neither high-rated programs nor "must-see TV" are good at that.

The best television for advertising isn't drama, sitcoms or movies. It's probably live information. Content that is quick, changing, urgent and useful. Perishable content that keeps the viewer viewing.

Every major television agency has done a white paper on TiVo and the potential effects of digital video recorders on the future of commercial television. DVR households are able to record, play back programs and, if they choose, fast-forward through the commercials. We describe this surgical procedure as a program being "TiVo'd".

The surprise is people TiVo "Friends" and "CSI." It's not surprising that they don't TiVo the Weather Channel.

re-evaluate live tv

In April 2003, Starcom and TiVo examined TV viewing in 14,000 TiVo households. The study has been reported in the press and widely discussed within the industry.

It shows that when TiVo homes record a program for later viewing, 77% fast forward through non-program time, mainly commercials and program promos. When TiVo households view live (or slightly delayed) programming, it drops to 17%.

Commercial defection is highest among premium "must see" programs, the high-rated dramas, sitcoms and movies. Reality programs are in the middle range. Programs that are watched live, like sports, news and weather, show the least commercial skipping, simply because they are not often recorded.

The data lead Starcom to conclude, "Broadcasters must think of creative ways to encourage live viewing of their programming." I think the unmistakable message to buyers is "re-evaluate live TV."

TiVo is a metaphor for what's happening in TV. The significance of TiVo behavior is in what it suggests about ordinary viewing. After all, you don't need TiVo to avoid watching the commercials.

It says live program formats are today's premium television, because they're more likely to get your commercial seen. And that makes sense in many ways. The fragmentation and clutter that are eroding attention paid to program television don't affect live television as much:

* Lower ratings lead to rerunning programs to amortize cost. Seeing a movie or a sitcom episode for the third time does not encourage attentive viewing. But you don't rerun the news.

* More commercials destroy the value of high-cost program environments. Today the lead-in to most commercials is not the program. It's many other commercials. But live TV, with the exception of sports, is priced on audience delivery, not the value of program environment.

* Lower ratings lead to more commercials to maintain revenues. A 12-commercial pod does not encourage attentive viewing. But live TV formats can accommodate more breaks, which results in fewer commercials per break.

This last point is important. The number of messages and how they are scheduled has a big role in encouraging commercial avoidance.

Program networks run fewer breaks with more commercials. But advertisers, when they think about it, prefer more breaks with fewer commercials. Both have good reasons. Many breaks in a program tend to annoy viewers and reduce ratings. Many commercials in a break tend to distract viewers and reduce commercial recall. In this conflict of goals, advertisers usually lose.

But some content formats are better for advertising. The short segments of live news, weather and certain sports allow frequent interruptions with fewer commercials. That is a better design for getting commercials seen and remembered.

Best practice, even when no longer best, has a fantasy life of its own. The TV upfront and our continuing obsession with high ratings are good examples. That's "Sunset Boulevard." Memories of a lost long ago.

But don't worry, Norma. You're still big. It's the ratings that got small.

About the author

Erwin Ephron, a partner in Ephron, Papazian & Ephron, a leading media and marketing consultancy. He is the father of recency planning and an expert on media values and markets.

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