News Wins Early Battle in Viewer-Engagement War

Weather Channel, MediaVest Study Offers Clues to Who's Plugged In

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NEW YORK ( -- No holy grail has emerged yet to measure just how engaged TV watchers are with ads, but one experiment has yielded an early clue. High ratings aren't the most important factor.

Weather Channel host Jennifer Lopez
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Indeed, how relevant a program is for its audience and where ads are inserted are likely to be much more important than whether a program was a Nielsen winner, according to one of the first major research studies on the issue. The research, which used recall as a way to determine whether an ad was noticed by the audience, was written up by Publicis Groupe's MediaVest as part of an upfront deal with the Weather Channel.

'Hannity & Colmes' trumps 'Monk'
First-blush takeaway? News seems to trump entertainment shows, as ad recall on the Weather Channel's "PM Edition" and Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes" outscored USA Network's highly rated "Monk." That finding is likely to inform MediaVest's upfront decisions.

"This is about 'lean to' TV rather than 'lean back,'" said Jim Kite, exec VP-director of insights, research and accountability at MediaVest.

Of course, the study is far from the be-all and end-all of engagement research, as MediaVest and the Weather Channel will be the first to admit. It focused specifically on ad recall, which many media sellers refuse to endorse as a viable measure of engagement because they have no control over the quality of the creative. And this study, the first in a series, measured only a small group of networks in a few genres: news and information and entertainment.

But the results are the first hard numbers that can begin to chip away at the mystery around the industry's latest hot-button issue. Last week, Nielsen Media Research announced it would begin measuring engagement, polling former panel members about their recall, awareness and attitudes toward brands and products advertised on TV. And this week the Advertising Research Foundation will meet in an attempt to create a clearer definition of exactly what engagement means and lay the framework for studies that will help advertisers understand how viewers interact with certain kinds of advertising.

But in the TV world, engagement really came to the forefront during last year's upfront, when MediaVest was one of a select few to sign upfront deals that hinged on more than just a ratings guarantee. In addition to MediaVest, Starcom, Carat and Magna Global did similar deals with Court TV.

MediaVest's deal with the Weather Channel included a research project centered on how certain types of programming affect ad recall. The agency designed the study, which the network underwrote. The network also guaranteed its ad recall rates would be higher than the average of the other networks MediaVest chose to include in the study and promised make-goods if they couldn't deliver on that promise.

For the small cable network -- according to Nielsen Media Research it ranked 40th in 2005 for total viewers -- having a major media agency control the study was a way to lend credence to its long-held claim: that its pod structure and programming environment tended to deliver better-than-average ad recall. For the media agency, it was a way to begin to understand the dynamics between programming and advertising effectiveness.

News seems to trump entertainment shows, as ad recall on the Weather Channel's "PM Edition" and Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes" outscored USA Network's highly rated "Monk."

The study was conducted in December, when the agency chose a combination of spots from four clients -- two food marketers, a packaged-food marketer and a financial services company -- to serve to four different cable networks. USA Network aired the spots in its popular original series "Monk." Food Network aired them during the cooking show "Everyday Italian." Fox News went with "Hannity & Colmes," and Weather Channel aired them in its 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. block, "PM Edition."

Conducted by ASI Entertainment, a Glendale, Calif.-based ad research firm, the study tested viewer recall of the ads, which all ran in the "A" positions on the networks. The Weather Channel and Fox News over-indexed in recall while Food Network and USA Network fell below the index.

While MediaVest warns it would be a dangerous conclusion to assume that all news and weather TV programs tend to deliver higher ad recall, it did take away an assumption that purposeful viewing begets higher recall -- and it's knowledge MediaVest will take with it into its upfront considerations this year.

"We'll be looking more closely, based on this research, at those types of shows and networks where the viewer is needing to watch a program, whether for work, travel or because they don't want to be out of their social network," Mr. Kite said.

More to come
Donna Speciale, president-U.S. broadcast and programming at MediaVest, said the agency may pursue similar studies with other media sellers in the upfront. "This is just a very small segment of more testing and research that we have to do on ad recall. Our goal is to continue with many of the other vendors to find the answers to many other questions."

And there are many other questions to answer. Liz Janneman, senior VP-cable ad sales for the Weather Channel, said the cable network has committed the resources to do two deals a year like the MediaVest one. On her wish list: adding a sports network to the mix. And the network may be close to designing a study on how placing advertising that's contextually relevant to a program affects its viewer retention through breaks and ad recall. She'd also like to throw into the mix a broadcast network to compare some of the most popular shows on TV. It was a surprise, she noted, that "Monk," one of cable's highest-rated original programs, didn't fare better, but surmised it had to do with the lean-back nature of entertainment programming.

"Fans can purposefully tune into 'Monk,'" she said, "but it's not impacting their lives, they're just enjoying the show."

Entertainment networks may argue that point -- and some are employing research of their own. NBC Universal, for example, is using IAG research to bolster its engagement claims. IAG found reality shows on Bravo, for example, to have among the most attentive viewers. And ABC is announcing this week research that profiles the types of viewers that watch certain shows, a step toward solving the contextual equation.

But perhaps a bigger question is how advertisers can tailor different kinds of advertisements to be more effective in different types of programs. While more but shorter advertising pods may work in news and information programming -- where a viewer is perhaps more likely to stay tuned through the break to get to the information they're seeking -- entertainment programming may be better suited to old-fashioned sponsorship-style advertising. Or branded entertainment.

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