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The Minute That Took Most of a Year
By Erwin Ephron

It started as a simple data fix. Analysis has shown the program minute is not a good proxy for the commercial minute.

TV argues over a grown-up approach to buying

What if you threw a party and everyone came? That happened to the ARF on February 5. Between in-person and online there were 200-plus instead of the usual 40. The attraction was a treasure hunt - the search for TV's elusive Commercial Minute.

This project has a backstory. It started as a simple data fix. Analysis has shown the program minute is not a good proxy for the commercial minute. It's five to 10 percent higher. If you think that's small potatoes remember the Networks would have killed for five percent this year.

From Program to Commercial

The plan is to change the commercial audience definition from average minute audience of the program, to audience of the minute carrying the commercial. Nielsen will start reporting the new data at the end of May. There the agreement ends. The Nielsen list of commercial minute candidates shows six different definitions preferred by different groups. Nielsen is prepared to produce them all, stand back and let the marketplace decide. All may be useful, usually one becomes a currency.

Research as Negotiation

Unfortunately the prospect of using commercial audience to calculate CPMs and guarantees can turn research into negotiation. This became evident at the ARF meeting.

First Jon Swallen of TNS showed the patterns of difference between commercial program audiences using precise set-top box data. Then NBC's diplomatic Alan Wurzel changed the subject. He led the group from the certainty of reducing numbers to the possibility of increasing them. His recommendation was to count DVR-delayed viewing. They watch commercials too.

Just as the lines seem to be drawn, Glen Enoch of ESPN showed data suggesting that delayed viewing wasn't all that important and was more likely to happen with network than cable.

Judy Vogel, the lone agency presenter, sensibly suggested that commercial minute was only a start. Other new measurements are needed to properly evaluate today's shape-shifted television.

Why the Commercial Minute

The meeting identified issues to be settled before we pick a new number. Most basic is what constitutes a commercial's audience? Nielsen, with its creaky legacy system tied to minutes, defines it as the minute containing the commercial. If the commercial spans minutes it is the average of the minutes weighted by commercial seconds.

TNS with a more exacting system asks why report the minute? Nobody buys minutes. It should be the commercial itself.

There's the question of whether the commercial minute should be average (for the program) or specific (for the brand). Many agencies would like both. Program average for buying, brand specific for posting and guarantees. Sellers want just averages.

Then there is the question of how DVR time-shifted viewing should be counted. Agencies say only live or near-live viewing has value. The networks say it should be live plus seven days, but they'll probably settle for three days since that's when most playback occurs.

Tuning Versus Viewing

The biggest issue is the one Vogel raised and everyone else talked around. When we've finished sculpting the new commercial minute, what are we left with?

Nielsen and all potential competitors measure set tuning which they call viewing. Viewing is an over-claim. Nielsen instructs the sample to push the button when they begin viewing television. But most don't log-out if they leave the room or when their attention shifts during the commercial break.

Our more careful neighbors overseas use a different term, OTS (opportunity to see a commercial) to describe what a meter measures. That definition clearly shows the need for other measures to define the value of audience.

We saw this happening last year in side deals made during the upfront. They used recall and attentiveness as supplementary estimates of audience delivery. That is a start.

Hope Floats

Our use of the word viewing shows how eager we are to downplay TV's problems. Another example is a major agency's recent suggestion that brands can engage viewers who "are only sort of paying attention." The agency calls this responsive awareness as distinct from attentive awareness.

Inattentive responsive awareness. Write that down. I assume it will include all Nielsen commercial viewers, who are doing something else, if only for a minute.


Erwin Ephron is an authority on advertising and the father of "recency planning." His fresh ideas about how ads work today have changed the way campaigns are planned throughout the world. Erwin

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