By Elizabeth Jensen
Special to TelevisionWeek
When it comes to use of media, the past few months will likely be looked back on as the tipping point when consumers finally took control away from programmers, distributors and advertisers. It’s all cable researchers-along with the rest of the industry-can do to keep up.
Understanding the implications of the fast-changing media world and what’s to come will be a focal point of this week’s CTAM Research Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., which starts Wednesday.
In just a few short months, new technology has roiled the business, with particular implications for cable. Viewers are paying at an unanticipated level to download and watch a growing number of programs on video iPods and other portable devices. Video-on-demand use is jumping, interactive television appears to have new life and programming is popping up on cellphones.
On the competitive front, telephone companies are finally launching their long-promised television packages to rival those of cable multiple system operators. NBC’s digital cable channel Trio switched to broadband distribution just weeks ago. Internet search powerhouse Google has unveiled its Video Store.
Audience measurement is undergoing its own changes. Nielsen Media Research recently started delivering ratings data that measures the impact of time-shifted viewing due to the increasing presence of digital video recorders. Digital set-top boxes can provide data on how some of the new technologies are being used.
In the midst of it all, advertisers are rapidly embracing product placement and questioning the value of the traditional 30-second spot as they try to make sure their messages are getting through.
“Things are changing practically before our eyes,” said Arthur Bulgrin, senior VP of research and sales development for ESPN and a co-chair of this year’s conference.
“There are new platforms and attention for consumer eyeballs and time that not only do we need to get our arms around but also put in perspective,” said Steven Leblang, senior VP of strategic planning and research for FX Networks and emerging networks at Fox Cable Networks. Mr. Leblang, also a co-chair of the conference, cited a CTAM study last year that showed about four times as many people think they have high-definition television as actually receive it.
“Our challenge [in the sessions] is not only wrapping our arms around traditional research issues, but also the emerging issues of measuring consumer behavior accurately,” he said.
To facilitate more open discussion, reporters have never been allowed at the conference since its debut in 1983, said Clay Collier, CTAM’s VP of research. But this year, for the first time, the conference will also be limited to CTAM members, excluding cable’s competitors from the satellite and telco worlds. Mr. Collier is hopeful that the attendance of cable programmers, MSOs, representatives of research companies, advertisers and their agencies will exceed last year’s record, when more than 350 people showed up.
They will be looking for “the most creative ways of understanding consumers,” said Betsy Frank, executive VP of research and planning (on a consultant basis) for Viacom and the incoming chair of CTAM’s research committee. She said the job of figuring out what viewers want “doesn’t get any easier. There’s more fragmentation, more and narrower niches and genres. You can’t create a brand without those kinds of consumer insights, yet it becomes harder to do it.”
MTV Networks has been aware for years that younger audiences that it targets were demanding and taking ever more control over how they use media. But the prediction was that such behavior would remain largely confined to young people, Ms. Frank said. Instead, the trend has “moved through the entire population at an astounding rate,” she said.
“We programmers, cable operators, satellite distributors don’t have the control anymore; the consumers and audience have the control,” she said, and that shift has upended business models that are built on the companies having the upper hand. The conference, she said, will examine “how research can help our companies come up with new business models.”
Gauging the Buzz
That means understanding their non-TV media use as well. Nielsen’s mid-January deal to become the majority shareholder in BuzzMetrics, a research firm that tries to understand so-called “word of mouth” on consumer behavior, will be one area of interest. Researchers are focused on “the whole idea of community and affinity, said FX’s Mr. Leblang. Online blogs, he said, “are mushrooming and becoming a way of life, particularly for the younger end of the audience. But what we’re trying to grasp is, is the choir singing or is this one very loud, aberrant voice?”
Likewise, he said, much of the industry expansion is in the area of what he called “hyper-niche” channels, such as Fox Reality, the network Fox recently launched devoted solely to reality TV and the company’s Fuel, which targets extreme sports fans. Minuscule Nielsen numbers belie the business opportunity available, he said, but it takes creative, nontraditional research techniques to understand the audience.
One session in Scottsdale will be devoted to a vintage research strategy that is re-emerging in popularity: the use of observational research, to the point of going to live with families, to understand just how consumers are using technology. “It’s an old-fashioned technique brought back as a powerful research tool,” Mr. Bulgrin said. “This is not just about audience measurement but about looking at consumers in new and different ways.”
But day-in, day-out ratings are still important too. Brad Dancer, VP of research and on-demand for National Geographic Channel, organized one of the conference’s key opening sessions, “Data Revolution: The Challenges Facing Audience Measurement.” The panel will pit the major providers of audience measurement data against the programmers who use it.
Between Nielsen’s brand-new ratings for time-shifted viewing and the data coming from digital set-top boxes, “We’re going to be inundated with data. Everybody is figuring out the playing field and nobody knows how it will play out,” Mr. Dancer said. “We’re at a new beginning for audience measurement,” he added, with the possibility of finally understanding how TV sets-which aren’t just for TV anymore-are being used.
“The question is how do we separate the good information from the bad, and what’s really useful at the end of the day,” he said.
In addition to the measurement companies Nielsen and Arbitron and upstart erinMedia (which is feuding in the courts with Nielsen), the panel will include a representative from TNS, which has extensive overseas operations, some more technologically advanced than in the U.S. There will also be an executive from Scientific-Atlanta, who Dancer expects will elaborate on “what [data] is in the set-top box” and which privacy boundaries cable and advertising companies need to be aware of.
The data-user side will include executives from the large programmers Discovery Networks and Turner as well as an agency and advertiser representative. “We’ve told the panelists the goal is to have a very frank and candid conversation about the future, what we see one to three years from now,” Mr. Dancer said.