A Time Shifting Tale

Advertisers are playing “catch up” to audiences, and advertisers are going to have to run faster.

That was one of the lessons I learned at the Faculty Seminar at the International Radio and Television Society, Nov. 15-16, at which a group of media professors from all over the country heard presentations from media professionals from all over the media industries: ESPN, ABC Stations, Zenith Media, IAB, Nielsen, Bravo, NBCU, and others. We heard a variety of perspectives on “Reaching Consumers in the Digital Age.”

The presentation by Oxygen intrigued me because it illustrates a basic conundrum for networks during this digital transition.

Oxygen wants to reach women, 18-34. Like men of that age, they are too mobile. According to a SVP from Oxygen, women 18-34 are not loyal live viewers; they like DVR viewing; they don’t always subscribe to cable but may watch online instead. This is logical: young women are perhaps busier in the evenings than older women and so they prefer time shifting. Most viewers who value their time will also value time shifting and will resist scheduled “appointment” program viewing.

However, in order to promote its reality competition, The Glee Project, Oxygen focused on a variety of “social tv” strategies designed to train the audience to tune into the premiere broadcast of each episode. Oxygen provided live chat on  its website with featured performers during the first airing; used Twitter to remind viewers what time to watch; promoted the check-in platform GetGlue to raise engagement and awareness; stimulated fan interest with a weekly vote on who was the favorite contestant; and awarded virtual stickers and exclusive video to loyal viewers.

Most of these strategies were designed to reward the viewers who tuned in to the first airing of the episode rather than the viewers who timeshifted by DVR, website, or Hulu.

Here is where the conundrum becomes evident. The majority of viewers time shifted. Oxygen was disappointed at the Nielsen ratings for the first episode of only approximately 455,000 viewers. By the end of the series, the Nielsen-measured viewership had increased to about 1.24 million, so the “social tv” strategies to encourage “live viewing” had succeeded.

But there are two problems here. First, Nielsen’s 20,000-household sample is infamous for not being able to accurately measure “niche” channels. A subsequent presenter who was familiar with DirecTV’s set top box data collection confirmed that there were always “discrepancies” in the viewership rates between what their 5 million households watch and what Nielsen’s vaunted, vetted, “gold standard” sample of 20,000 households watch. So, who is to know if that initial viewer estimate was accurate at all?

Second, it seems to me that these strategies to encourage “live” viewing miss the larger point. The targeted demographic likes to time shift! Oxygen measured 43 million streams over the course of the series! 43 million streams on the network website, on Hulu, and on VOD. Wait, doesn’t that mean the majority of viewers time shifted? So why weren’t all those “social tv” strategies considered a rousing success for generating so many views?

Because of the legacy economics of cable network television. The audiences who watch the premiere of an episode during its scheduled time are more highly valued, and earn the network higher CPMs, than the time shifting audiences. The CPMs for those time shifters are much lower, and thus the network cannot “monetize” them as effectively as they can the “live” viewers.

So I asked, isn’t it Oxygen’s job to explain to advertisers the value of those audiences who time shift? If advertisers actually want to reach those viewers, aren’t advertisers going to have to go where the viewers are rather than insist that viewers come to them?

Although it was pointed out that some advertisers, such as movie studios, have time sensitive commercials and thus have no use for time shifters at all, I think all advertisers must reconsider the way they value the “live” audience over the timeshifting audience.

If advertisers only want audiences who sit in front of television sets for appointment viewing, then someday soon they will be left with only the old viewers, the not-busy viewers, and the less affluent viewers.

Mediators of content, such as cable networks, are in a tricky position. Oxygen doesn’t own The Glee Project and so can only profit from the program if it successfully sells advertising during its Oxygen run. But if Oxygen is good at building a content brand that attracts elusive women 18-34, then they should also work on convincing their clients, the advertisers, that the value of those audiences should extend to time shifting audiences, whether they time shift on the network website, Hulu, or VOD.

If Oxygen does not succeed in convincing advertisers of this, then they too will be left with the remnants of TV audiences, which would be a pity, since they are clearly so successful at going out and finding the audiences where the audiences actually are.

One thought on “A Time Shifting Tale

  1. I think the actual problem is that advertisers still don’t know how to advertise effectively anywhere else. They’re great with gripping you by the arm when you’re already sitting down and they’re blocking your program for two minutes, and they’re knockouts in print, but they still haven’t figured it out on a video-texty-multi-tabbed browser.

    And it’s not a trivial problem. The 30-second spot allows storytelling, which is how advertising has worked for at least a century. Website sidebars, on the other hand, don’t seem to support much storytelling. Not only that, you can’t run a campaign. Hardee’s has been running the same campaign for close to ten years now, and so long as they hit the major networks, they’re cool. TV’s let Geico and Target run very identifiable campaigns, too, for about that long. This isn’t possible online. The ground shifts underfoot too fast. What’s a “major network”, and who’s there?

    Apart from which, the advertisers still just don’t know what to do with the browser. Is it print? Is it video? What the hell is it? No ad form has been developed yet that resonates. And when you look back over the last, oh, 6-7 years, they’ve tried a lot. There’s cartoony shit that comes to life and wanders across your screen. There’s popups with close-window x’s that’re hard to find. There’s intrusions from every side of the browser. There’s vibrating, dancing, eye-rolling, fidgeting animation. There’s fake social media. There’s ad websites disguised as infotainment. There’s been a lot of clever stuff. And none of it works a smidge as well as advertising that the viewer travels to see: reviews by nobodies and somebodies, word-of-mouth, mentions in news media (who are curating consumerland: note how sci blogs and mags are increasingly cool-gadgets-you-can-buy media), retailers’ recommendations, and famous ads. The problem, of course, is that this very much restricts opportunities for effective advertising. That’s a lot of gatekeepers between advertiser and customer.

    As for me, we were actually a Nielsen household a couple years ago. I tried telling the lady we’re not at all representative, but she insisted. What I found was that I often forget I have a downstairs TV, and upstairs I listen to C-SPAN as radio more often than I listen to All Things Considered. Our total TV viewing is about 6 hours a week, half of it Saturday-morning cartoons. But I’d venture to say I spend most of my waking hours in front of a screen.

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