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Midsize Cablers Go Out for a Spin

Aug 15, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Special to TelevisionWeek

In what may be the first meeting of its kind, a group of cable network executives quietly gathered in New York in mid-July to compare notes on how they use research to spin media planners and buyers. While the information they shared didn’t exactly divulge any trade secrets-most of it had already been well circulated on Madison Avenue as part of each network’s upfront sales pitch-the presentations revealed just how differently media companies using similar data can craft sales pitches that effectively differentiate themselves from the pack.

“Often, they are working with the same syndicated data, Nielsen ratings or qualitative data, but some of the things they came up with represented interesting new ways of positioning it. It wasn’t stretching it, but it was telling media planners unique stories about making the best use of your clients’ money,” said David Zornow, founder of TNG Research and chairman of the Committee on Nationwide Cable Audience Measurement, which hosted the meeting.

In fact, the research approaches shared by these executives was nothing like the kind of Nielsen ratings spin employed by the major broadcast networks or the top-tier cable networks, which use numbers to reinforce their claims of quantitative audience supremacy or growth. The research presented by these networks was all about creative ways of interpreting syndicated data or augmenting it with primary research to shed new light on the unique quality of their audience or programming environment. Or, as CONCAM’s Mr. Zornow said, “It was about innovation.”

Given the nature of the networks that presented at the meeting-midsize channels, including Comedy Central, Court TV, Hallmark Channel and TV Guide-it’s not surprising that they would come up with unique ways of using research to separate themselves from the field.

“Certainly, none of them are what you would consider top-tier networks in the sense that you have to buy them. So they have to sell a little harder,” Brad Adgate of media agency Horizon Media observed. “What they’re trying to do is make cable buys go deeper so that they can make it on the list versus the broad-based, fully distributed networks. They have to think quicker, smarter, better. Otherwise, they’d disappear.”

At least one of the presenters showed research used during its 2004-05 upfront sales presentation that was designed to get planners to think about the relative value of household distribution, audience growth and a wide range of qualitative factors such as the impact of programming environments on advertising effectiveness.

While a number of networks make such claims either explicitly or implicitly in their sales pitches, Hallmark Channel actually created a tool that enables planners to analyze it themselves. Hallmark’s so-called cable network value analyzer is in fact a spreadsheet incorporating a series of tabs that enable planners to scroll through a range of criteria, including coverage, ratings growth, advertising and brand impact. While the analyzer uses data that is commonly available in the marketplace, Jess Aguirre, VP of research at Hallmark, said the value is in pulling it all together in one place for planners to use it.

“Advertisers are beginning to look for a lot more value than just spots and dots,” Mr. Aguirre said. “Media planners and buyers are starting to look for different types of tools to evaluate the value of a ratings point beyond reach but also what resonates with the viewers.”

Hallmark Poll

To determine exactly what kind of research would be most effective for Hallmark, the network also conducted some research among planners and buyers themselves, polling a cross-section of agency executives of various levels about how they use research and what kind is most likely to move the needle for a channel such as Hallmark.

“What we learned was that at the planning level there’s a propensity not to just look at spots and dots but also to take a qualitative look at how your network fits with a brand,” Mr. Aguirre said. “At the buying level, it’s certainly more about demographics-more about spots and dots-and the usual currency of the business.”

Armed with this knowledge, Mr. Aguirre devised the network’s analyzer to serve the needs of both planners and buyers, enabling them to choose among the metrics that are most important to them in evaluating a cable network for a buy. The system includes a unique scorecard that draws from a combination of the quantitative and qualitative data to create what Hallmark dubbed a “value score.” The score combines a network’s audience delivery, its audience growth, the effectiveness of ads running in its programming and its commercial clutter environment into a single index that planners can use to re-rank the relative value of a cable network.

“Take TNT as an example,” Mr. Aguirre said. “It’s one of the highest-rated networks. It ranks No. 6 in its impressions delivery and No. 2 in household ratings. But if you factor in its commercial environment, it’s a bit weaker.”

Using Hallmark’s overall value score, Mr. Aguirre said, TNT would rank fourth among all cable networks. But taking a network such as History Channel shows “exactly the opposite story,” he said. “History ranks 14th in audience delivery, but when you factor in its lower commercial environment it really shines. Overall, when you include all of these factors, it ranks a healthy fifth.”

In another example, CNBC ranks 33rd in audience delivery, but only 49th in audience growth, 40th in ad effectiveness and 43rd in commercial environment, giving it an overall value score ranking of 48.

Other networks have developed equally ingenious ways of slicing syndicated research data to position themselves. Court TV, for example, has used a combination of Nielsen commercial tuning data and ad effectiveness research from syndicated suppliers to demonstrate that its viewers are more involved and more likely to see and be influenced by advertising than viewers of most broadcast and cable networks.

Comedy Central developed original consumer research designed to dispel the perception among advertisers and some agencies that “edgy” programming like much of its schedule might be a negative environment for advertising. In fact, the research showed it’s often an enhancement. The data showed that the edgy programs tended to generate higher aided and unaided awareness of the ads running in them.

This, said Comedy Central research executive Ray Giacopelli, is mainly because viewers tend to pay more attention to edgy programming: “It’s the lean-forward versus lean-back effect. Edgier programming is designed to get you more involved.”

But the “home run” in the research, he said, was the fact that it showed edgy programming to be just as “safe” an environment for brands as the non-edgy kind.

“It makes sense, because a Lexus is a good car whether you are advertising on `Howard Stern’ or on `Masterpiece Theater,”‘ he noted.