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Measuring Actual Eyeballs

Jul 15, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Television is turning to science to figure out who is paying attention to commercials as the medium continues to tout its worth to advertisers.

PreTesting Co., which is rolling out set-top boxes that will measure commercial watching on a second-by-second basis, also is the inventor of a technology that monitors eye movements to figure out what’s interesting to viewers.

CBS also is installing eye-tracking technology from a company called Tobii at its Television City research facility in Las Vegas.

“We are doing a lot more research now into the whole idea of commercial retention and commercial engagement,” said David Poltrack, executive VP for research and planning at CBS.

In some cases, the network will be doing its own research to share with clients. In other cases, clients can ask CBS to do research on their behalf, either for a price or as part of an advertising package.

“We’re all going into this as a joint learning experience for the media and the advertisers,” Mr. Poltrack said.

The research pays off for the advertisers because they learn how to get better response to their ads, he said, while it pays off for CBS because the network’s audience for commercials can grow, enabling it to command higher prices.

NBC also is looking at gadgets that measure palm sweat, breathing patterns and eye movement to see if viewers are paying attention.

“The reasons we’re into neurological research is because I believe a point gets reached on certain research questions when you can’t get anything more by interviewing a respondent,” said Alan Wurtzel, president for research at NBC Universal. “Sometimes, people just don’t know what their brain is doing, or that you’re trying to get a measure of a behavior or a cognitive process that goes beyond consciousness.”

Mr. Wurtzel said while NBC is focusing on attention to commercials, he’s likely to use the technology for other kinds of audio-video communications, whether on television, the Internet or wireless devices.

He suggested the technology could even be used for pilot testing.

“It would be great to know without asking you when you were very interested in part of a show, which characters you like, which ones you didn’t like,” he said. “These things aren’t going to write commercials for you or write TV shows for us. I wish life was that easy for us.”

Mr. Wurtzel said the interest in this type of research is coming as the equipment needed to do the research is becoming smaller and less obtrusive and researchers have a better idea of how the brain functions.

In some cases, NBCU is working with the General Electric Research Labs on some eye-movement technology GE developed for security applications.

“If we can develop and apply some of these less intrusive methods when we expose people to these programs or commercials, then I think we’re really on to something,” Mr. Wurtzel said. “A lot of this stuff is going to fall by the wayside, but I think some of it is going to stick, and I’m very excited about what we’ve already seen.”

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