By Brian Steinberg
In October 2007, the executive team at the National Geographic Channel huddled together to figure out how their cable outlet was faring under a new ratings metric that measured how many people watched the commercials, not the programs they ran against. They were far from happy with what they saw.
After a series of contentious discussions in 2006 and 2007, advertisers and TV networks agreed to commercial ratings as the trading currency, shortened to C3 because they include up to three days of viewing through digital video recorders. Adoption of the measure marked a radical departure from business as usual, and National Geographic Channel was dismayed by its performance at the time.
"We sat down and we took a look at where we were relative to our competitors in the ‘non-fiction’ [programming] space. We were dead last," recalled Steve Schiffman, exec VP-general manager of the cable channel, which is jointly owned by National Geographic Ventures and News Corp.’s Fox Cable Networks. "Not only were we dead last, we were dead last by a wide margin. We were just beside ourselves."
Since that time, National Geographic Channel has experimented with nearly every element of its on-screen product, said Kiera Hynninen, exec VP-marketing and media strategy at the cable outlet. The only thing executives knew for sure is that they couldn’t use one method across the channel’s entire programming schedule. Different shows called for different techniques, she recalled.
"We really do look at it as a not-one-size-fits-all approach," she said. Boosting C3 ratings "varies by type of show, by genre, by daypart," she added. "It’s very much an art."
If that’s the case, it’s one that more TV executives would like to master. When viewership for ad breaks is the currency upon which ad revenue is based, the networks are forced to stop running ads in the same way they have for decades and to start tailoring ad appearances so that viewers don’t act on their first impulse when they see an ad pod beginning: change the channel, grab a snack, hop online — anything but watch the very pieces of promotion that pay for the entertainment they are watching.
During "Dog Whisperer," executives tried such things as tucking a "how to" video in ad breaks that took viewers behind the scenes of how a promo for the show might get made. Of course, Cesar Millan, the dog-behavior expert featured in the program, made an appearance. Likewise, a piece of ad-break content appearing during "Dangerous Encounters" made use of host Dr. Brady Barr explaining the behavior of geckos (not coincidentally, the vignettes were sponsored by insurance company Geico, which uses a gecko character in its ad campaigns). Executives examined everything from background music to whether certain cues from the shows might prompt viewers to depart.
For National Geographic, solving the problem was crucial. "This is a big issue" for all TV networks, particularly cable outlets, said John Spiropoulos, senior VP-director of marketplace analytics at Publicis Groupe’s MediaVest, as they tend to run more commercials and longer ad breaks.
To generate better ratings, the networks could simply run fewer ads so that viewers wouldn’t have much time to turn away from the screen. But that would hurt revenue. Instead, he said, "they have to add shorter pods or get rid of things and migrate them to some sort of product placement or branded entertainment, whatever it is. That’s why a lot of them are looking at placing content in commercial breaks, he said, because "they can just move advertising to that and try to sell it" at a premium.
Already, a bevy of top networks have been playing with various methods. ABC, CBS and NBC have restructured the ebb and flow of programs such as "Jimmy Kimmel Live," "The Late Show With David Letterman" and "The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien" so that more national commercials air earlier in the show — before some portion of the audience turns off the TV and goes to bed.
Time Warner’s Turner cable channels have offered advertisers the chance to insert commercials that are relevant to the action going on in the specific program running at the time of air; the idea is that ads that seem more relevant to the action on-screen command more viewer attention. Walt Disney’s ABC has been running ads along with weather information during "Good Morning America" in the hope that viewers who need information about temperature and rain will refrain from changing channels.
At National Geographic, figuring out exactly what to do required the efforts of all hands: research, marketing, ad sales and programming. Advertisers were enlisted to take part in some of the research, said Richard Goldfarb, senior VP- media sales. And a team directed by Brad Dancer, National Geographic Channel senior VP-research and digital media, began to sift through not only traditional measures, but also second-by-second viewership patterns. The channel even enlisted a Boston firm, Innerscope, which specializes in looking at the physical reaction viewers have to various elements displayed on screen.
According to the channel’s research, its efforts were able to boost its measure of "C3" success — a ratio of commercial viewing to program viewing — by as little as 1% in some cases (for the program "Dog Whisperer," which moved to a 98 in the channel’s 2009 fiscal year from 97 in fiscal 2008). In other instances, National Geographic was able to secure a 7% improvement for "Taboo," a program that explores unorthodox rituals from around the world, and a 12% uptick for "Locked Up Abroad," a show that examines incarceration in different locales.
As media choices continue to increase and traditional viewership numbers gradually erode, efforts such as National Geographic’s are bound to intensify. The easier way to increase commercial ratings "is to improve your ratings in general," said MediaVest’s Mr. Spiropoulos. That goal, however, may no longer be as simple to attain.#
Five Ways to Fix C3 Ratings
1) Make your ad breaks "sticky"
By inserting relevant snippets of content — a vignette related to the program being interrupted or a video featuring a blend of your channel’s programming and an ad message from a willing client — you might get some viewers to stick around or ease up on the fast-forward button.
2) Rid your shows of commercial ‘cues’
Don’t tell viewers a show is set to break for commercials. Instead, offer them some reason to stick around despite the ads — some networks have tried trivia questions or movie previews.
3) Talk to your producers
You may want to rearrange the structure of when programs break for ads. Do you have more viewers in the first half of a 60-minute program? How about one long ad break after a 10-minute program segment? Work with your creative folks to devise a "break architecture" that makes sure ads reach the highest concentration of viewers.
4) Be flexible
Just because one idea boosts commercial ratings in late-night doesn’t mean it will do so in the morning. And placing an ad-break vignette featuring the star of one show might mean little to the viewers of an entirely different program. Every situation is different.
5) Be old-fashioned — get better program ratings
The shows with the best commercial ratings are often the ones with the best audience ratings overall.#