NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Viacom is looking seriously at the ways it organizes its commercial breaks, and MTV Networks, its main cable unit, is the first to take concrete steps to do so. MTV Networks has signed a deal to start using second-by-second audience data from TNS Media Research, which will help executives monitor viewer behavior during specific moments within ad breaks.
"There is more than one way to present commercials to an audience," said Colleen Fahey Rush, MTV Networks' exec VP- research. "We're really interested to see if commercial viewing is different in, say, prime time vs. late night, or if ... certain types of commercials at the beginning of a break create a higher-rated break." Among the elements MTV will consider are whether viewers behave differently at various times of the day, including late night and prime time, Ms. Fahey Rush said.
Scrambling for info
MTV's move echoes that of other media players, who have also signed on to use TNS's second-by-second data. More viewers these days can skip past ads with a digital video recorder. At the same time, advertisers are paying more attention to viewership patterns of commercial breaks, not just the programs they interrupt, thanks to adoption of a new Nielsen measurement that analyzes viewership of commercial breaks, also known as pods. As a result, media buyers and TV operations are all scrambling for information about the elements that make viewers react to TV ads -- or avoid them entirely.
TNS's data, based on the behavior of 300,000 digital-cable subscriber households in Charter Communications' Los Angeles market, can tell what programs and ads viewers are watching and whether they change the channel. But there are limitations. TNS, for instance, can monitor when digital video recorder users record a program, but it can't tell whether viewers speed through ad breaks when they play back their selections.
Viacom has good reason to explore audience behavior. Many of its channels, which include MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, Spike and Logo, draw younger viewers, who are notorious for splitting their attention between various media tasks -- TV watching and instant messaging, for example. MTV Networks is also under scrutiny by media buyers, who believe that commercial ratings on its channels are bound to show audience erosion. In a conference call last week, Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman said the company was considering a range of new techniques to increase viewer retention for ads, including examining the order in which commercials appear within commercial pods.
Scripps also using data
Scripps Networks in July signed on to use TNS data, the goal being to examine the structure, order and creative elements in ad breaks, said Robin Garfield, VP-sales research and strategy. Publicis Groupe's Starcom media-buying agency is also making use of the data.
At a time when Nielsen is formally offering minute-by-minute audience analysis for its commercial ratings, introduced earlier this year and now widely adopted by many advertisers and media outlets, TNS has offered its second-by-second data as an alternate means of measurement. "Commercials aren't a minute. They are less than that," and advertisers want more granular data on audience behavior, Ms. Fahey Rush said.
Networks' focus on the order of ads within a single pod suggests big changes are in store for the venerable commercial break. For years, TV ads ran in random order, with every advertiser getting its share of the most coveted positions. But the new scrutiny on ad breaks will add pressure on networks and may force them to start running ads in a particular order that keeps viewers rooted to their screens rather than changing channels or fast-forwarding.