Sorry, the Internet Can't Fix TV's Reach Problem

The Answer To TV's Reach Problem Is Fixing TV, Not Moving Campaigns to the Web

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Dave Morgan
Dave Morgan

As I wrote last week, TV advertising has a growing reach problem caused by accelerating audience fragmentation. Over the past fifteen years, the average reach of national TV campaigns has dropped by 20% and individual spots by 80%, in spite of TV viewing being at an all time high. While this seems to have come as a surprise to many, what surprised me was the number of industry folks who have responded with an indifferent "So what?" Apparently, there is a not-so-insignificant school of thought in the media industry that reach on TV doesn't matter so much anymore.

I disagree. Ad reach on TV matters now more than ever. Agencies, clients and networks alike should all care. Here are five good reasons why:

A target audience not reached is a potential customer not created. The reason marketers buy media is to deliver commercial messages to audiences, communicate product and brand attributers and hopefully create a customer. Like the proverbial tree that falls in an empty forest, a TV ad that does not reach a viewer is a commercial message not seen, heard or felt. Nothing gets communicated and no one finds a potential customer.

The cause of the reach problem is fragmentation compounded by the failure of industry's tools and practices to keep up. TV's ad reach problem is not endemic to the medium; it's endemic to historic TV ad selling, buying and measurement practices. TV has plenty of available audience, more than it ever has. However, while audience fragmentation was dropping to effective reach of the average spot, the tools and audience data have only gotten slightly better and the industry's post bundling and buying practices have changed virtually not at all. You can't buy spots on hundred of shows with ratings of ones and twos, in today's world, the same way you bought a dozen spots on 10+ rated shows, fifteen years ago.

Talking targeting is a red herring. Some folks respond that we've moved past the days of mass awareness campaigns and that reach doesn't matter because we're now much more targeted with our TV advertising. Nonsense! I hear a lot of folks talk that talk, but the data bears out that they don't walk the walk. The primary difference between audiences who are reached by national TV ad campaigns today and those who are missed is how much television they watch. Heavy viewers get reached over and over. Light viewers get missed, entirely.

The "network effect" still requires audience exposure. Some argue that TV is really about creating buzz among influentials who then tell others. Water cooler talk is great, but if audiences don't see an ad, they can't really talk about it. Even "network effect" experts agree on this. Borrowing from a recent issue of AdMap, even Yahoo scientist and leading social network theorist and proponent Duncan Watts has concluded, "that it is impossible (to) reliably generate large effects by targeting a few key influencers."

Making up lost reach "off-TV" is expensive and not even close to comparable. The response of some to TV's ad reach problem is look "off-TV" – to other media like the Internet and radio – to find the light TV viewers. First, it is hard find light TV viewers without duplicating your reach against heavy TV viewers, since they tend to consume lots of radio, Internet and other media as well; it is actually, harder to find them elsewhere than it is on TV. Second, no other media has the visual, auditory and emotional engagement of TV. Any other media impression is a poor substitute if you're trying to create a real impact on the potential customer.

If you believe in advertising and believe in the unmatched power of TV advertising to create customers, you should care about TV's growing ad reach problem. Do you?

Dave Morgan is CEO and founder of New York-based Simulmedia, a TV ad targeting company. Simulmedia uses data-driven technology to help improve the relevance and results of TV advertising. Follow him on Twitter at
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