Campus Viewing Stirs a Rumpus
As the first TV ratings from Nielsen Media Research measuring college students' viewing become available, cable TV networks are making some crucial programming adjustments.
MTV ranked first among networks watched by college students in the first full batch of Nielsen college data, and the network is using the new ratings information to tweak its late-night programming lineup to maximize advertising opportunities, says Michael Greco, senior VP-research and planning at MTV.
"The ratings show us how college viewers differ from the general 18- to 24-year-old audience, and one thing we learned is that college students watch a lot of TV after 11 p.m.," he says. "We want to make sure we're putting the right programming into each daypart to match their habits."
'A baby step'
Cable networks are poring over the new data from Nielsen Media Research, but while it's significant, it isn't revolutionizing the business, they say. "The new college ratings data is a step in the right direction for out-of-home viewing, but it's a baby step," says Sam Armando, senior VP-director of research at Starcom, Chicago.
After a three-year pilot program, the first data from Nielsen's Extended Home study was released early this year, and last month Nielsen clients were finally able to analyze it using Nielsen's proprietary software.
"Now we know that college students watch up to 30 hours of TV per week, and we know what they're watching. This is a win for us and for ad agencies, because we now can demonstrate that this audience is really here," says Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer at Turner Broadcasting System, who says Turner has seen ratings lift at TBS and animated Adult Swim and Cartoon Network.
|Source: MTV Networks and Nielsen Media Research|
*Adult Swim is separate from Cartoon Network in terms of ratings. The data was collected from Jan. 29 through March 25.
Not the whole universe
While Nielsen's college ratings are an improvement, Mr. Wakshlag says they fall short of capturing the entire college universe, and they tell a limited story about students' TV-viewing habits.
"Previously, the only measure we had for college students' TV viewing was when they were at home," he says. "Now we know the biggest chunk of information available about what they're watching when they're not at home, but it still doesn't capture the many other venues like bars and entertainment spots where college kids watch TV."
Through people meters installed in dormitories and common areas, sorority and fraternity houses, and off-campus housing at colleges across the nation, Nielsen tracks the away-from-home TV-viewing habits of about 150 individuals who were already part of its 10,000-home national people meter sample, says Anne Elliot, VP-communications at Nielsen.
Small but powerful
"The Extended Home study is a relatively small sample. We can't use it to look at millions of viewers or the impact on numbers of viewers, but it's unique because we haven't measured it previously," she says.
Still, cable networks that focus on the college market are capitalizing on the positives. The college ratings showed Comedy Central's "South Park" is the No. 1 cable TV program among male viewers 18 to 24, says Michelle Ganeless, exec VP-general manager for the Viacom network.
"The new ratings haven't changed our strategy, but now we're getting credit for delivering college viewers, and we're going to say it loud and say it often," Ms. Ganeless says.
College-focused cable TV networks have gotten around the lack of TV ratings in the past by pushing hard on promotions, events and on-campus marketing, and that isn't going to change.
Good for sales
"It won't significantly change the way we do business, but it's certainly a plus for helping us sell our product," says Tina Exarhos, exec VP-marketing at MTV Networks, which owns college-focused cable networks MTV, MTV2 and MTVU, an unrated, closed-system TV service reaching 7.5 million college students on 750 campuses across the nation.
Ms. Exarhos says the ratings won't prompt MTV to change its campus-marketing efforts. "We offer advertisers various ways to connect with college students where they live. TV ratings are the icing on the cake," she says.
Other anecdotal findings from Nielsen's pilot study include the fact that college students watch a lot more animated TV programming than previously thought, and the number of women watching sports is also higher than estimated, Ms. Elliot says.
College TV ratings might have turned more heads a decade ago, before the competition from mobile and digital platforms. But Turner's Mr. Wakshlag remains optimistic.
"The Nielsen college data shows us that college students are watching ... probably more TV than ever. They may also be consuming media through other devices, but for the first time we can absolutely prove that they are big consumers of TV," Mr. Wakshlag says.