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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