Value of Tracking on Rise at Networks

Apr 4, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In today’s cluttered media world, “tracking” research, which measures viewers’ awareness of and intent to view programming, is becoming a more significant tool of the prime-time business.

That’s primarily because tracking helps network marketing executives assess how well the multitudes of promos they throw behind their shows are working.

“It’s more important now because there is more competition,” said Vince Manze, president and creative director of The NBC Agency. “It can help you figure out where you stand, and how to translate that information into what you need to do [to get viewers to tune in].”

With data from tracking studies, a network can adjust marketing elements for a show, such as airing more promo time, adjusting the creative content of the promos or buying more print or radio.

Typically, tracking starts six weeks before a show is to debut. In June, before promos are aired for new fall shows, the networks’ research departments work with outside research companies to collect research data from viewers. This process involves asking viewers simple questions, such as whether they have heard about any upcoming new network shows. Generally, few viewers are aware of new shows. Another report normally is generated in the third week of July. Then reports start being generated weekly until the premiere of a show.

“This gives us a base story,” Mr. Manze said. “If they have heard of your show, then you are doing very well. But that’s usually still a very low number.” That can be in the 5 [percent] to 10 percent range of awareness among all viewers, he said.

Later in the summer the networks begin airing promos, and another tracking study is taken in July. This time the network executives are looking for higher awareness levels. “At this point, you’d like to start in the high teens to 20 percent on awareness,” Mr. Manze said. “You want to end up in the 40s-that’s a good score.”

The big goal for new shows is not only to get the awareness score to a 40 or above, but also to get the intent-to-view score in the 40-plus area. Rare are the shows that reach a 40 score in both measures. Of course, this data cannot guarantee ratings success.

In the days before NBC’s March 7, 9:30 p.m., premiere of “The Contender,” the reality show set in the world of boxing made it to a 40 awareness level and about a 20 intent-to-view score. That was pretty good, Mr. Manze said.

However, in its March 7 premiere “The Contender” garnered a 4.0 in adults 18 to 49 and 8.4 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, which placed it third in the 9:30 p.m. half-hour (behind CBS’s “Two and a Half Men” and Fox’s “24”) and second in most demos from 9-10 p.m. (behind CBS’s “CSI: Miami” but ahead of ABC’s “Supernanny”). “The Contender” built slightly from its lead-in (“Fear Factor,” which got a 3.8 in adults 18 to 49), but was lower against “Factor’s” 9.3 million viewers.

In its Sunday, March 13, time period debut, the show sank to a 2.7 in adults 18 to 49. That was 4 percent above the time period average for the season in the demo. “Contender” came in fourth in the time period.

Programming analysts said the show didn’t have higher ratings because women viewers tend to dislike any content that involves boxing.

“You would have liked it to be a bigger hit, but we were relieved for the number that we had got,” Mr. Manze said.

While a high awareness level is generally a good thing, if it’s combined with a low intent-to-view score, the data could indicate ratings trouble. If a network show gets a 50 in awareness, for example, and a 10 in intent-to-view, that likely means that while viewers have seen the advertising, they are not interested in tuning in.

If the numbers are reversed-a low score for awareness and a high number for intent-to-view-that generally means few have seen the advertising, but those that have are very interested in the show.

A network may change the creative focus of the spots during tracking-making them more romantic, or tougher, or funnier or quirkier. But mostly networks look to adjust creative in the earlier focus group process-where actual audiences screen the promo spots.

For NBC’s “The Office,” the network knew from the start the mock documentary one-camera sitcom would have a different creative style from other standard sitcom promos. “I wanted to be loyal to the show,” Mr. Manze said.

That meant doing a spot in the same mock-documentary style, with no voice-over, no music, just some biting wit from the show’s star Steve Carell, who plays a politically incorrect paper sales manager.

Sometimes a show’s awareness level is nearly impossible to budge. For example, NBC tried to promote the 1998 Al Franken-produced comedy, “LateLine” but couldn’t raise its awareness scores. “Apparently, people were confused by the title,” said Mr. Manze, “perhaps confusing it with NBC’s “Dateline” or ABC’s “Nightline.”

“We knew it was the name [that was the problem],” Mr. Manze said. “We knew we couldn’t have run that many spots and have that low of an awareness level.”

Close to the Vest

Tracking information is somewhat closely held among network executives. TV producers-in an increasingly competitive world-seek any information that will persuade the networks their shows need more marketing help.

But Mike Benson, senior VP of marketing, advertising and promotion for ABC Entertainment, said tracking studies shouldn’t be taken as gospel.

“It’s more of a guide,” Mr. Benson said. “The odd thing about tracking is that the numbers can bounce from week to week. They don’t necessarily make a lot of sense. You have to look at it over a long period of time and see if the needle is going in the right direction.”

ABC’s strong debut for “Grey’s Anatomy” tracked well but not perfectly. While its intent-to-view score was very high, its awareness was slightly below average, Mr. Benson said.

In its debut March 27 at 10 p.m, “Grey’s Anatomy” scored a 7.2 rating in adults 18 to 49 and 16.3 million viewers,easily winning its hour over NBC’s “Crossing Jordan,” which pulled in a 3.7 rating in the demo. “Grey’s” was down from “Desperate Housewives'” 10.7 adult 18 to 49 rating and 24 million-viewer lead-in.

The show’s ratings performance was a product of the right promos, Mr. Benson said, as well as its lead-in.

Competing network marketing executives snickered that the show needed only “Housewives'” gigantic large lead-in of viewers to assure the launch’s success.

Mr. Benson disagreed.

“We want to hit a certain communication goal when the show launches,” he said. “You are hoping you build up awareness and intent-to-view to get the ‘Desperate Housewives’ viewers who will watch. The lead-in is incredibly important. But if you are going to put a brand-new show after a really great show, and no one has heard anything about it, then the chance to get people to stick around is more difficult.”

Given the growing importance of tracking, more elaborate research is starting to be marketed to networks.

In the past several months media agency Initiative Media has been selling a research tool called PropheSEE. It gleans data from millions of messages from publicly accessible Web sites and merges that data with information from TNS Media Intelligence, a research company that also does tracking for the broadcast networks.

Initiative Media said the added benefit of Web site chatter is that it is a good predictor of TV shows. Additionally, PropheSEE gives networks a broad tracking picture.

“The networks are only tracking their own stuff. They are not tracking what everyone else is doing,” said Stacey Lynn Koerner, executive VP and director of global research integration for Initiative Media.

Also, where the networks primarily track only in the summer months in preparation for the new season, PropheSEE develops tracking trends many months in advance of when a show is tentatively scheduled to air-all of which give networks a new level of information
in predicting how a show will perform.

PropheSEE is close to getting its first network clients, Ms. Koerner said. “We are in the middle of a deal with one network and three-quarters of the way through a conversation with another,” she said.