NBC CEO and President Jeff Zucker is pooh-poohing ratings. There are a lot of sour grapes in the reporting and comments for that particular story (at least on TV Squad) citing that it’s easy for Zucker to be somewhat dismissive of the ratings because using that metric his company is getting creamed.
But what he is saying actually is closer to reality than anything I’ve previously heard from TV executives and I have to give him the appropriate hat tip for it, even if he’s arrived at the conclusion for self-serving reasons. What drives me batty about the Nielsen ratings is that it is a single metric used to measure TV viewing habits that is antiquated, entrenched solely because of tradition and adhered to because as far as I can tell no one wants to be the one to break ranks with it.
I don’t intend for this to devolve into a pro-TiVo rant, but I can’t quite grasp why the Nielsen Company has been tabulating PVR-based statistics for over three years but has yet to incorporate them into its ad rates. Actually, I’ll clarify: I can’t figure out why advertisers don’t demand that the PVR stats be included.
As I understand it, the process goes like this: A network attempts to develop a show that it hopes will attract a sizable audience so that large group of people can be exposed to ads that command a higher price due to the large number of consumers reached. In order to correctly set those ad rates, they need to use a system of monitoring how many people are watching the show and, ideally, who those people are (ie their demographic) so the correct advertisers are paying appropriate rates. From the network’s perspective it’s in their best interest to have as close-to-accurate numbers as possible so they can court the right advertisers and quote them the right price. The advertisers want those numbers to be as spot on as possible as well, so they aren’t over-paying and aren’t sending their ads at people who don’t care about their products. So far I can’t see any reason why anyone would want to use vague, representative numbers when they could have a more detailed analysis.
I get that advertisers would get their knickers in a twist about PVRs because they almost universally contain commercial-skipping functionality. To a degree it doesn’t matter whether the advertiser is hitting the target demographic with their ad if that demographic is just fast-forwarding through it anyway. But in an epic example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the advertising industry chooses to ignore the potential for accurate ratings data that is presented by PVR devices because they also happen to allow their expensive ads to be marginalized with 30-second skip features. It’s a period of transition I admit but some advertiser out there needs to understand that a) they’re still putting commercials in shows even though PVR technology exists and is becoming more prevalent and b) they’re still using old data-collection methods to determine where to advertise and how much to spend.
Logically they should be using the PVR data-collection features which reaches both a more desirable demographic (early adopters, families with disposable income, people who recognize value-add products, etc) and a larger cross-section than Nielsen does. It also avoids the issues often cited as criticisms of the Nielsen system because it becomes inclusive since anyone who purchases a product (or a service as it has been offered by cable and satellite providers) can join in the stat-counting if they choose. Advertising and rate-setting is an attempt, in essence, to quantify and monitor popularity so it makes no sense to have some committee or algorithm determine who is most representative of the average American. What the Internet culture has taught us most clearly is that popularity isn’t predictable but it is a driving force for creativity and there is an appetite for people to be a part of culture definition. I know I certainly wouldn’t mind my viewing preferences to be counted among those that are used to determine what shows have entertainment value.
TV executives and creative people who work in television seem to have a lot of stories about shows that were unexpected hits or subject matter that seemed unlikely to find an audience but actually found one where no one expected it to emerge. How can a system like Nielsen possibly be equipped for that? An example is the original Iron Chef, imported from Japan and translated literally with overdubs, which aired on the Food Network several years ago. I saw a retrospective show on the channel talking about it where they said the demographic that latched onto the show was young, educated males which they didn’t expect. Basically they meant that the nerd crowd picked up Iron Chef and watched it faithfully and anecdotally I knew it was happening; I first heard about the show on Slashdot and got hooked on it that way.
But it made sense in retrospect: Nerds were used to watching comically-dubbed Japanese shows from all the anime they consumed, plus there is a strong interest in Japanese culture among technically literate young males. Add to that the adversarial nature of the show that pitted skill against skill rather than concentrating on athleticism and it was like a geek’s football. Plus it had a certain camp and unintentional comedy from the translation work and it was a surprise that shouldn’t have been a surprise at all. What if Apple had been watching the PVR stats and noticed that 18-34 year old males with a high percentage of engineering backgrounds were recording Iron Chef episodes? They could have scored a coup by picking up ads for dirt cheap on a tiny extended basic cable network show that would have catered directly to their target audience. But instead they were paying top dollar to advertise on CSI to a bunch of blue-hairs because most geeks long ago realized that CSI treats science with about as much respect as it does the investigative process of police departments.
Even if a lot of those nerds were fast forwarding Apple’s spots, you can bet that the low rate would be worth it to hit up those geeks that hadn’t yet acquired a network-attached digital recording device but were still watching Iron Chef every week.
The crazy thing is that it’s probably only another year or so that this end-run around the sadly obsolete Nielsen system (announced revamp notwithstanding; I’d call that a case of too little too late) will be viable. Eventually someone will wise up and either PVR tech will become ubiquitous enough that the entire game will have to change to a more embedded advertising routine (witness the corny Ford injection into recent PVR-friendly dramas like 24 and Alias, “You take the new Mustang GT! I’ll take the F-150 with 250 horsepower and optional side airbags!”) or someone will find a way to target the ads directly on PVR boxes themselves.
But either way, I’m just hoping someone figures something out soon because I’m tired of good shows getting canceled due to poor Nielsen performance that represents nothing. Maybe it only takes the one network exec or the one ad firm to break ranks and change the game. Maybe Zucker is that guy, but I doubt it. If he finds a hit show next season and shoots to the top of the “charts,” expect a full redaction.