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NBC Bets Its Viewers Pay Attention

Attention, please!

NBC is out to show its programming is more than just video wallpaper.

The General Electric-owned network has struck a deal with Toyota Motor that requires the network to demonstrate that its viewers have paid attention and are able to recall particular details about a TV show, such as its storyline.

NBC is making the commitment in addition to giving Toyota a standard minimum-audience guarantee that relies on Nielsen Media Research TV ratings for proof. To demonstrate viewer attention -- or audience "engagement" -- both NBC and Toyota will use data from IAG Research, a New York firm that measures viewers' response to TV programs, ads and product placements.

Should certain agreed-upon parts of NBC's program schedule not meet the guarantees, the TV network would give Toyota additional "make-good" advertising time, or put more Toyota ads in shows that are garnering better attentiveness from audiences, says Marianne Gambelli, executive vice president, sales and marketing, for NBC Universal. Networks routinely offer "make-goods" when shows fail to meet guaranteed audience levels.

The deal highlights how TV outlets are taking steps to retain ad dollars in the face of increasing competition from other media such as the Internet. It also shows how advertisers are looking for new ways to measure the value of TV advertising, conscious that consumer response to certain types of Web advertising is easier to track.

"Advertisers have a growing alternative" to traditional media outlets, says Tom Wolzien, a media-industry consultant, which "sort of forces the incumbents to respond." Verizon Wireless says it has already made some commitments with TV networks to include engagement measures, and Johnson & Johnson says it is in discussions with magazine publishers and major broadcast networks about devising engagement measures.

Toyota requested the new measurement during its recent "upfront" negotiations with NBC, says Kim McCullough, corporate manager of marketing communications at Toyota Motor Sales. In the upfront ad-market, networks sell the bulk of their ad time for the coming fall season. "There is a very high correlation between someone who is engaged and attentive to the program, and the ability for our ads to break through. It's important that we get as good an environment as possible" for commercials, she says.

Of course, viewers equipped with a digital video recorder may pay such close attention to a program that they will want to use the DVR to speed through the ad breaks. The engagement level doesn't measure ad-zapping, though Nielsen later this year will start offering ratings for commercial breaks that will reflect how audience levels change during the ad breaks.

The deal also puts the spotlight on the somewhat subjective field of "engagement" measurement. IAG regularly surveys via the Internet a panel of about 1.5 million people. A few times a week, each person on the panel is questioned about subjects such as their recall of specific programs and whether they liked them or not. Respondents are paid a small fee.

Measurement at present is not "totally murky, but I don't think we have reached resolution either," says Sandy Eubank, U.S. director of research for OMD, an Omnicom Group media-buying firm. She expects more attempts from Madison Avenue. As more people find value in measuring attentiveness, she says, "more heat is going to be put on the issue by advertisers and agencies."

These measures are likely to evolve, acknowledges NBC's research chief, Alan Wurtzel. "This is the first step, and first steps are never where you are going to end up," he says.

The engagement-guarantee comes as networks are experimenting with other ways to woo advertisers. Last week, Publicis Groupe's Starcom USA and Landmark Communications' Weather Channel unveiled a pact that calls for the cable outlet to deliver specified audience levels for certain Starcom clients while their commercials are showing.


Brian Steinberg, The Wall Street Journal. July 21, 2006

Copyright © 2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. All rights reserved.