Viewpoint: Rating TV Programs in Today’s Media World

(appeared in Ad Age May 18, 2011)

Media executives are deeply ensconced in the TV upfronts this week, the networks’ annual round of presentations and parties that have come to resemble their own reality shows on air, as pitches are followed by media buyers’ votes — in the form of ad buys.

This used to be just a game of anticipating ratings. Higher ratings meant higher reach among consumers, which was very attractive to big brands looking to create awareness for their products and services. While shows with big audiences still have big value, the average rating of a top 10 prime-time show is almost a third of what it was 25 years ago. And that has implications for the way advertisers should evaluate TV and how networks should develop their schedules.

Optimedia Content Power Ratings chart

Optimedia’s Content Power Ratings values programs using three key criteria:

  • Audience Delivery — including average audience impressions across TV, web and mobile platforms.
  • Involvement — overall awareness of and loyalty to program; including index of Google search volume and effort made to watch the show.
  • Advocacy — overall levels of conversation and PR activity — including press mentions, recommendations and general “buzz,” in addition to personal recommendations.

Optimedia’s Content Power Ratings use data sourced from the agency’s own primary research as well as Nielsen Media Research’s NTI database, Nielsen Online Video Census, ComScore’s Media Metrix, Video Metrix and Mobile Metrix, Facebook, Klout, Twitalyzer, Nielsen’s BuzzMetrics, E-Poll’s ProgramPulse, Google Trends and Dow Jones Factiva. Content Power Ratings 4.0 evaluate all network and cable TV shows during the 2010 calendar year.

We want TV to deliver more than eyeballs. We want it to generate, among other things, greater involvement with consumers. Studies consistently point out that when viewers are more engaged with a show, its advertising and branded content proves significantly more persuasive as well. In the Content Power Ratings study we at Optimedia released last week, shows such as “Family Guy,” “Glee” and “The Office” come out on top in terms of viewer involvement.

Marketers are also trying to make their TV campaigns more social, driving conversations both online and off through more active sponsorships and brand integrations. We’d argue that shows with high “viewer advocacy” provide enhanced platforms for brands that want to create more buzz. “Glee” was the top show for viewer advocacy last year, according to our Content Power Ratings study. Other shows that completed our top five ranking in terms of viewer advocacy were “American Idol,” “Lost,” “Modern Family” and “Dancing with the Stars.”

But viewership, of course, is simultaneously shifting to other screens. According to Nielsen, online video viewing is up 48% just in the past 12 months. With the second generation of the iPad flying off the shelves, tablets are becoming a genuine third screen in the home. So it’s important for advertisers to understand where certain shows are being watched and what that means for their marketing plans. Online viewers are likely to be younger, harder to reach by traditional means, and certainly well connected digitally. In many cases they may be more open to new brands. The top five shows viewed online were “South Park,” “The Bachelorette,” “Big Brother,” “Glee” and “The Secret Life of an American Teenager.”

So what are the overall implications to the networks’ programming and scheduling strategy?

  • Comedy is back. While in the past seen as a riskier proposition to pilot, this genre has the potential to create a more involved and influential viewer. There are at least 16 new comedies being piloted in prime time, with USA planning five new comedies in its 2011-12 schedule.
  • Shows able to establish active fan bases offer attractive value to advertisers. A strong presence in social media doesn’t just reflect a show’s popularity among passive viewers, but also how current it is and how well it’s penetrating popular culture.
  • The more participation in a show the better, whether it’s interacting with content online, voting for contestants or discussing it with friends. We have seen strong evidence of this with one-off events such as the Super Bowl and MTV’s Video Music Awards, where tweeting a show has amplified it. According to Content Power Ratings, this pattern has shifted to regular weekly shows. And there appears to be plenty of appetite remaining for singing and talent competitions.
  • The networks will want to consider how well a show performs online, where they can command ad rates on par or even at a premium to prime-time TV prices.

TV and marketing are evolving to reflect the changing cultural and digitally shaped landscape. We buyers are looking for multiple things from the networks: large audiences, engaged audiences and active audience

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The advice of “American Idol” judges could help you to develop your brand

By Antony Young

With American Idol starting back on screens this week, it’s worth reminding ourselves just how valuable the judges advice can be applied to brand marketers trying to stand out among the clutter.

OK, so you know the drill. Young American Idol hopefuls perform at various auditions or stages of the competition where the judges pass on their comments/assessments to the contestants. Their criticism often hits hard, but invariably they get it right. In most business categories we work with, brands need only face maybe a dozen competitors; but the music industry abounds with hundreds of thousands of talented artists of which only a small number go all the way. The stakes are high. Rarely does succeeding in this competition come down to technical singing ability. Instead, it’s how that talent is packaged and presented, and most importantly, how it resonates with viewers. There are many parallels in brand marketing.

How often have we heard them give this advice each week?

“Don’t pick a Stevie [Wonder] or a Whitney [Houston] song…chances are you’re going to come off as a poor imitation.”

Brands can’t afford to imitate. To be honest, very few brand ideas are truly original. But at the very least, you have to have a fresh take on an old idea. Would Nintendo Wii have been as successful if it tried to imitate the Sony PlayStation experience? Very unlikely. Puma is not going to win by imitating Nike, nor does it try to.

“Have an interesting story…the oil-rigging dad from Texas; the clean- cut nanny from California; the bartender from Tulsa who first picked up a guitar at age 2.”

Brands need to tell a story. As humans we can relate to stories. More importantly, we react to stories with emotion. Emotion causes people to pay more or act impulsively-exactly what a brand needs. Jim Beam’s story of a German immigrant who settled in Kentucky, founded a distillery, and the Beam family’s 214-year association with bourbon is very much part of the brand’s story and appeal. Always remember that facts support, they don’t sell.

“Imagine what you’ve got to do to get 12-year-old girls to text in their vote.”

I’ve never really heard them say this, but let’s face it, that’s what they infer. Every market or brand has a sweet spot, yet so often the temptation is to try to appeal to too broad a consumer. Despite Coca-Cola being obviously consumed by every age demographic, they focus their advertising on that 17-year-old consumer. What about retailers? Do the same rules apply? I worked with a popular retailer in the U.K. that defined its customer as “Debbie.” It was able to articulate her life, her interests, her family and her concerns. It put up posters of her in their meeting rooms. Then every decision the company made from product ordering, store design, point of sale, promotional items, advertising creative work and even the media plan would be qualified with the question, “Do we think this is going to be relevant to Debbie?” Have a picture in your head of whose vote you are pitching. What’s going on in their lives? What does it take to sell to them?

 “If you can’t dance, then don’t.”

Just because other companies have been hugely successful with certain marketing strategies, it doesn’t mean that it’s right for you. Every company has marketing competencies and you have to play to your strengths. Budweiser really knows how to leverage sports sponsorship. Does that make it the best approach for Coors? The Economist is brilliant at creating out-of-home advertising, but that doesn’t make it the right media strategy for BusinessWeek. Could P&G create a Nike ID-type marketing initiative? Very difficult, but who’s better at them at developing effective TV copy?

“We want to see the real YOU come out.”

Consumers are looking to a brand’s authenticity to judge its performance. This has become even more important today, given the speed and transparency of how information is spread across the Internet. This is causing brand reputations to be built or broken at the behest of how consumers and the media report their versions of events. This has myriad implications as to how brands communicate. Search and social media are fast becoming a more pervasive and impactful media of choice.

“It’s really important to choose the right song.”

For many brands, the ads are their music and lyrics. Getting the messaging and media strategy right is crucial to being picked over another brand. In the downturn, we found fashionistas giving way to recessionistas, as frugal has become the fad. Given this, Walmart, for example, has been hugely effective at pursuing this market behind its “Save money. Live better” tagline.

This is not a time when marketers can afford to get it wrong. So my advice is to listen to the Idol judges. Be relevant, be contemporary. And importantly, keep in mind, the words no one wants to hear …. “I thought you were forgettable.”

[This article, is an edited version of a piece I wrote a few seasons ago in Adweek. ]