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Guest Commentary: Making the Case Against Live-Plus-3-Day Ratings

Dec 14, 2008  •  Post A Comment

As we look for silver linings to the dark clouds overshadowing our industry, we should remember that—although it may not feel like it—we are at a time of opportunity.
As the global economy continues to find its footing, we’re seeing that the greatest opportunities lie in an ability to deliver more tangible accountability, under justified pressure from marketers. And we’ve also learned that the path toward greater accountability is paved with accuracy. So if we have a chance to develop new priorities that can redefine the market and empower us with more accurate currencies reflective of real human media experiences, why not push for those opportunities?
It seems our first steps in reinventing the marketplace may be taking us in the wrong direction, settling for measures that value expediency over accuracy. The Television Bureau of Advertising has come out in favor of live-plus-three-day ratings as the industry standard for local broadcast negotiations. But it’s clear that we can—and should—have something better. And now is the time to find and implement it.
Take a look at the accompanying graph, comparing minute-by-minute data of live television viewing with live-plus-3 and live-plus-7. It isn’t hard to see where the commercials are. They’re the dips that clearly identify the falloff in commercial viewing relative to program viewing. What’s interesting to note, however, is that the rating dips are roughly equal to live ratings at those moments. Even a cursory glance at the graph proves that live ratings are consistently better than time-shifted ratings when it comes to judging commercial viewership.
The graph represents only one program in one market, so we looked at broader data to see if our point of view holds true. That data used national TV data across the five major networks, and validated that live program ratings most closely resemble commercial ratings.
It showed that live-plus-3 ratings overstate commercial ratings by 11% to 12% and live-plus-7 ratings overstate commercial ratings by 12% to 13%. Interestingly, the C3 ratings were within 1% to 2% of the live program rating.
Given these numbers, you can’t help but wonder why buyers and advertisers are overpaying for commercial audiences in markets where the only available ratings are live-plus-3 or live-plus-7.
Trouble is, live ratings are only available in 18 markets—the ones with local people meters. For the rest, we’re stuck with live-plus-3 or (even worse) live-plus-7. Both of those measures—as you can see from the graph—inflate program ratings over actual commercial viewing. Given the choice to decide the lesser of two evils, I’d take live-plus-3 over live-plus-7. But I’m not about to accept that as the industry standard. Not when there’s better data out there.
Nationally, Nielsen has already begun providing C3 ratings, which measure live and time-shifted commercial viewing. Sadly, it’s likely we’ve gotten confused with all these letters and numbers. While Nielsen is rating commercials on a national level, there is no such measurement available on a local level; the L3 ratings we refer to are still rating programs only. So far, technology (such as Nielsen’s current ability to process local data in only quarter-hour blocks) and inertia—including local station resistance—still keep us from getting the granular data of commercial ratings on a local level. But rest assured, it’s only a matter of time before such measurements are available to us.
In the meantime, we must continue to push to use live ratings in places where it’s already available—and for new markets to get them sooner rather than later. Given the relationship between ratings and prices, marketers are paying more than a fair value when it comes to live-plus-3 ratings. In every negotiation there has to be give and take, and if we can’t yet take commercial ratings, then we should at least be given live ratings. (And don’t get me started on post buys. How can local television stations guarantee only 90% of the audience when it’s already overstated?)
Here at Starcom, our national buying team has signed on to the Precision Metrics Promise, through which we negotiate upfront deals only with networks that apply precision metrics—minute-by-minute or second-by-second data—to their offerings. It’s inevitable that local media metrics will follow suit, and we’ll be able to provide those same principles to our local strategies.
Whether the data is provided by Nielsen or not, someone will step in to fill the vacuum, particularly if more advertisers balk at calling live-plus-3 an industry standard and begin demanding something better.
It’s a case I’ve stated before, but settling for anything less than commercial ratings as our standard is an indicator that we’ve settled when we actually need to shake things up.
Happily, Nielsen is set to provide live ratings in 38 more markets by 2012. Increased demand for more relevant data should be able to quickly push that into even more markets. But we have to start demanding it, because we know it’s there, it’s available, it’s better for everyone. And its time has come.
Kevin Gallagher is executive VP and local activation director for Starcom USA.

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