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Reality redefining loyalty, appointment TV

Feb 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The reality programming craze has advertising media planners scratching their heads over what effect the genre is having on that highly prized target consumer: the loyal viewer.
While that other prized demographic-youth-is in demand despite the difficulty of reaching it, the loyal viewer is cherished precisely because of his or her inertia.
We know he or she will be watching all or most of the 13 or 18 episodes of “Friends” or “Frasier,” “ER” or “CSI,” or (in the past) “60 Minutes” or “20/20.” This was what the industry has long considered to be “appointment viewing.”
But what happens to loyal viewers when the short-run “Bachelor” series is succeeded by the short-run “Bachelorette,” or when “Joe Millionaire” lasts for only seven episodes?
Do planners chase loyal viewers around schedules, or are those loyal viewers simply migrating to reality shows? Should we redefine the “loyal viewer”?
“Older viewers are certainly more appointment-oriented,” said Chuck Thompson, senior VP, group planning director, Universal McCann. “A traditional view of appointment TV Is `Friends,’ `Frasier’ or `20/20.’ But now an MTV generation brought up on `Real World Las Vegas’ believes that reality is appointment television.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Thompson argued, it’s harder to find loyalty at this end of the market, and if one does find loyalty, it is likely to be toward a genre, such as shock or dating, not to a particular show.
The “Jackass” viewer will migrate to “The Bachelor” and will move on to “Joe Millionaire.” It fits in with the reality viewer’s profile as more mobile and connected. The danger is that those viewers move on very quickly-look at season two’s plummeting ratings for MTV’s “The Osbournes.”
Planners such as Steve Sternberg, senior VP and director of audience analysis at MAGNA Global USA, see the reality trend as a plus. “The influx of reality series has been mostly positive,” Mr. Sternberg said. “They are bringing new [mostly younger] viewers into a network who may not have been watching the network’s other offerings. The networks’ other programming can therefore be promoted to an additional viewer base.”
A quick fix for weak slots
He praised the speed of reaction that reality has allowed: “For the most part, the strongest reality shows have replaced weak series,” he said. “What did NBC have on Monday before `Fear Factor’? [`Daddio.’] Fox’s `Joe Millionaire’ replaced `girls club,’ CBS’s `Survivor’ revitalized the network’s former weakest night. ABC’s `The Bachelor’ replaced declining comedies.”
Both Mr. Sternberg and Mr. Thompson pointed out that by filling so many difficult time periods with reality shows, the networks can (theoretically) devote more effort to fewer new scripted series, or at least not rush them to air before they’re ready.
Both planners also agreed that-as with newsmagazines-once the networks start scheduling too many on the same night or opposite one another, there will be a shakeout. Look at “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
The lasting effect on loyal viewers is not yet clear. As Mr. Thompson pointed out, “We need to look ahead 18 months to the ones that have the most legs, like `Survivor’ when they spice it up a little. How many times can you keep watching `The Bachelor’ in different guises?”
Mr. Sternberg added, “The only potential downside for advertisers is that some won’t advertise in many of these shows. And the percentage of available rating points on the networks devoted to reality shows has risen sharply over the past couple of years.” That percentage, he said, has gone from 3 percent among households two years ago to about 8 percent this season-and higher among younger viewers.
Reality shows seems to be affecting network competition more than cable competition. Overall TV usage in the hours that contain these shows has not risen dramatically, Mr. Sternberg said.
So despite some claims that it appeals mostly to light viewers, reality is still drawing more from viewers who were previously watching other network programs. What happens when the craze is over is another story.