Editorial: TV spots need a ratings system

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Eighty-five percent of marketers are interested in making commercial ratings the currency for TV audience measurement, according to a survey released last week by the Association of National Advertisers. Ratings today focus on the wrong thing-programs-when they should measure what matters to the advertiser: who sees my spot. But the standard won't change until advertisers force the issue.

TV buyers and sellers know that people may zap spots or leave the room during commercials. But networks would rather live with the system than change to a measure quantifying this. Agencies, too, surely have trepidation.

Nielsen Media Research, the dominant ratings supplier, has sold some minute-by-minute data since 1999. It offered greatly expanded data last year but found few takers; agencies say the price is too high. There's also a flaw: Minute-by-minute ratings come from National People Meters on sets in 5,500 homes, but people often ignore instructions to log out when they leave the room-meaning commercial ratings count people who went to grab a snack.

Nielsen has put work on a more accurate meter-an Orwellian image-recognition device that scans the room to see who's watching-on the backburner while it focuses on matters such as digital TV and digital video recorders.

What to do? As we said with our December "Cracks in the Foundation" report, the market won't get better metrics until advertisers demand and help pay for improvements. (We estimate Nielsen U.S. TV research revenue at $600 million, 1% of the $60 billion U.S. marketers will spend on TV ads in 2004.)

The market needs a ratings system-from Nielsen, from someone-that accurately measures what matters. High costs, yes, but a higher return on investment: Advertisers will know who's watching ads and shows; agencies will need to create spots that measure up; networks will be able to demonstrate value by guaranteeing ratings for a given slot. TV will be accountable, and those who produce results will thrive. Advertisers will get what they pay for.

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