Too Small for Nielsen to Measure? Check the Set-top Box

Starcom USA Issues New Policy for Start-up Cable Networks

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NEW YORK ( -- Attention, cable start-ups: Just because you're new doesn't mean you don't have to supply marketers with relevant data about who might be watching you -- at least those represented by Starcom USA. The Publicis Groupe media agency unveiled a new policy that it will not negotiate upfront deals with networks too small to make it into national ratings data and those that cannot offer a "dimension of quantitative metrics data."

As digital technology gives rise to dozens more cable channels -- AmericanLife TV Network, anyone? The Tennis Channel? -- and a new array of high-definition outlets, that's one tough challenge thrown down by Starcom. Many new cable channels spend the first few years of their lives unrated by Nielsen, because they don't reach enough homes.

A 'first option'
But Starcom has used viewer-behavior data culled from cable-system set-top boxes, and "to the extent that it's available, that's a first option," said Natalie Conway, senior VP-cable activation director at Starcom, "but we'll consider anything that gets us closer to how our commercials are affecting consumer behavior."

The Starcom deal is emblematic of how new technology is bringing more scrutiny to the effectiveness of TV advertising. When marketers relied on three broadcast networks to run the bulk of their advertising, getting measures of the masses who were watching was quite sufficient. Now with hundreds of cable and digital options available, smaller audiences are flocking to each, and advertisers want more granular measure of how they act, not just whether they watched a specific show or channel.

Starcom has struck such pacts before. LAst year the firm negotiated an upfront deal with Discovery Communications that used second-by-second data from media-research company TNS to guarantee viewership on the Discovery HD Theater channel. Starcom clients for the deal included Allstate and Best Buy. TNS monitored the viewing activity of 300,000 Los Angeles-area customers of Charter Communications through cable set-top boxes.

Up until now, emerging cable networks could count on getting a break from marketers until they could provide solid Nielsen viewership data. New cable channels might provide household subscription data and talk about growth and use that to build a price per commercial unit, said Ms. Conway. But "there's just not a lot of back-end accountability," she said, and "often what happens is when they are finally rated by Nielsen, most of these players end up seeing rather significant rollbacks because, of course, viewership isn't as high as you might hope."

Because so many emerging media initially lack third-party measurement, they often end up cobbling together rather unique deals with advertisers -- and not always for big bucks. In 2005, for example, Viacom's VH1 Classic, then reaching around 38 million U.S. homes, allowed R.A.B. Food Group's Manischewitz to sponsored a one-shot Passover-themed program called "Matzo & Metal," which featured scenes of Jewish rock stars sitting around a Seder table with Manischewitz fare. At the time, an R.A.B executive said in an interview that the company was able to secure the deal for about $10,000.
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