What This Dirty Little Secret Means for the TV Industry

Ashley Deibert

A questionable practice by TV networks recently surfaced in the Wall Street Journal, “In TV Ratings Game, Networks Try to Dissguys Bad Newz from Nielsen.” Essentially, some networks attempt to temporarily disguise low-performance viewership in order to increase their average viewership ratings on “off” days. This little trick isn’t rocket science. By simply misspelling the name of their shows on those days—for instance, “Nitely News” vs. “Nightly News”— the measurement system fails to read the show correctly, leaving the real show’s overall average viewership rating intact. 

While this dirty little secret isn’t kosher, the bigger question is: why is an industry still overly focused on protecting a metric that doesn’t speak to actual audience outcomes?

It’s no wonder every time we open the trades there’s another article on brand’s moving dollars to digital. Is it really such a surprise? Channels which not only actively engage audiences, but accurately measure their outcomes, are sure to be favored by those who have responsibility to prove return on investment.

We can’t turn back the clock—TV simply wasn’t built with this luxury. But we have to be honest with ourselves and admit that TV still has unprecedented reach. It’s not dying. It simply must adapt and evolve for both audience behaviors and advertisers’ needs.

So where do we begin?

1. We have to demand metrics that tell us what audiences actually do, not what they might do.

While the GRP hasn’t lost its relevancy, it’s simply not telling us everything we need to know. When it comes to making ad placement decisions, awareness and market level data is great, but when it comes to determining ROI? Not so much.

That’s where household-level data comes in. Frankly, it’s critical to attribution measurement and helping advertisers determine not only who might have seen their ad, but if a resulting action took place. Did they visit my website? Make a purchase? Check out a local dealership? Sign up for a checking account? The path-to-purchase (or visit, or sign-up) is often a detailed, winding road, but with billions being spent on TV advertisers can no longer afford not to demand a direct response metric to determine ROI of TV investments.

2. We have to start paying attention to local outcomes.

In a day and age where we can get super-personalized and targeted in our marketing efforts, it’s a shame that we haven’t been able to get more granular on local TV measurement. For industries who are dependent on local strategies to drive sales, this basically means that a large chunk of their data story is unavailable.

With myriad data sources at our finger tips, the opportunity to leverage and merge them to help us decipher local market performance, is great. First party data such as point-of-sale transactions, device IDs, brick-and-mortar foot traffic, branch visits, and even participation in local sponsored events married with TV data from all 210 DMA’s (as opposed to the top 100) will help us as an industry get a step closer to really knowing which markets brought the most customers to the table—not just which ranked the highest in terms of viewership.

3. We have take earned media seriously.

It’s a natural tendency to only put TV into the paid media bucket. But the reality is that every day brands are earning unpaid media spots that they should be able to attribute real value to. Instances like spoken mentions on a syndicated TV show, logo appearances from a camera panning through a stadium or coverage by a local news station provide real brand equity, but until recently, it wasn’t necessarily easy to track and measure it.

Advances in logo detection and closed caption tracking are now helping brands not only discover when and where their earned brand mentions are happening, but actually attribute real media and audience values to them. By putting earned and paid media on the same measurement standard, brands can start to strategize around these types of placements, instead of just waiting for them to happen.

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