As Tom Peters famously put it, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. For too many years, network television executives have relied on incomplete and inaccurate measurements of viewership of their programming. This inaccuracy — plus the emergence of other, online ways to reach the same market — has finally come back to bite them, in the form of alarmingly soft TV ad sales.
This week the bulk of ad sales for the TV networks’ fall season has come to a close, and the reports aren’t pretty. I’m reading estimates that the major players will see a drop of 3 percent or more in sales compared to last year at this time.
Many think this is primarily due to the fact that DVRs now filter programming in 16% of American televisions. That means millions of viewers who would otherwise be exposed to advertisers’ messages have the opportunity of fast-forwarding through commercials.
What’s more, television viewership in general is down, regardless of whether a DVR is intervening.
Just as with other industries such as recording labels and movies, technology is changing the rules and causing the ad-driven networks to retrench, if only belatedly and with baby steps.
How? More technology. Nielsen Media Research, whose largest customers are these television networks, recently announced a comprehensive plan to measure electronically all TV viewers, regardless of video platform. With this initiative, called Anytime, Anywhere Media Measurement (A2/M2), Nielsen is developing technology that will measure viewership on the Internet, cell phones, iPods, and other personal devices — all with the intent of eventually merging this data into its Nielsen National People Meter sample.
Other reports from last year described an even more aggressive “People Meter.” This one, the Portable People Meter, would literally be carried by participants in the sample like a PDA. It would pick up ultrasonic identifiers broadcast on television and radio, to meet the pesky challenge of measuring media consumption in taverns, gyms, airports and other public places.
I am fascinated to watch how these huge industries are confronting their eroding markets. A final measure of the level of erosion, and desperate nature of these attempts to win back ad customers, is that avowed competitors are joining forces in the fight. In the Portable People Meter initiative, radio listenership would be measured as well as television viewership. Arbitron, a fierce competitor of Nielsen and a leader in radio audience measurement, is a partner in the technology’s development.
Will these attempts be able to turn things around for broadcast media? It’s hard to say. Tom Peters would point out that they may be taking steps toward better measurement, but that’s only the beginning. Then these measurements must be put to use, to manage better the products being broadcast.
They’ll have a clearer view of their customers — one that’s closer to what database markers are accustomed to seeing right now. And that means they’ll be able to see all of the dissatisfaction and the defections, as they happen. Then what will they do about it? Now that will be interesting to watch.