MBPT Spotlight: Does Live Viewing Still Matter?

In today’s C3, multiscreen, video streaming media environment, does live viewing still matter? The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes, yes, yes and yes.

While headlines persist about the demise of traditional TV, the simple fact remains that (according to the latest Nielsen data) the time people spend watching television on a television set is more than twice the total time spent on the Internet, social media, smartphones, game consoles, DVD/Blu-ray and multimedia devices combined. So understanding the dynamics of this viewing and its impact on advertising effectiveness is still extremely important.

My wife and I often go to the movies with our 15-year-old son. A routine has developed that invariably repeats itself. Prior to the movie, they air several commercials, none of which my wife or I have seen before. My son, however, is quite familiar with them, often singing along to a jingle. When I say I never saw any of those commercials, he turns to me and says, “Yes, I know, you never watch commercials anymore. You DVR everything and fast-forward through the ads.” My son, as usual, is correct. 

My wife and I time-shift much of our primetime viewing. We seldom watch the commercials—maybe only during the 20% or so of the time we are watching something live, and that’s usually sports, news, late night, award shows or off-network series on cable (such as The Big Bang Theory).

Over the past several years, there have been sea changes in what people can watch on television or video, how they can watch, when they can watch, even at what speed and on what platform they can watch. Yet the since the 1960s, when three broadcast networks accounted for more than 90% of all TV viewing, the way Nielsen measures the average minute audience has not evolved much at all.

In that pre-remote-control era, when it took a minute or so for someone to get off the couch, walk across the room and change the channel, it didn’t really matter how Nielsen chose to measure the average minute. Minutes were simply averaged up to the program rating, and no one thought about any potential need for more granular data.

Today, you can switch channels more than a dozen times in a minute, and half the country has at least one DVR (and most DVR playback involves some fast-forwarding through commercials). Current audience measurement used as marketplace currency is simply not equipped to pick up all of this activity.

Despite misleading labels such as “commercial minute ratings” and “C3,” Nielsen does not measure commercial or commercial pod ratings. Since Nielsen does not measure individual commercials, it obviously cannot measure the viewers who are fast-forwarding through those commercials. C3 measures average minutes that contain commercials up to three days after the initial broadcast, but the methodology used can significantly over-state commercial exposure during playback.

Amidst all the talk about moving from C3 to C7, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that knowing the percentage of live viewing remains the only way to know who is not fast-forwarding through commercials. 

I recently conducted a study that compared live and DVR viewers. It showed nearly identical engagement with the programs being viewed. But live viewers had about a three-times greater recall of specific brand messages than did those who viewed programming via DVR playback.

I’ve been analyzing live viewing by networks for several years now. Looking at November 2014 data for the top 30 rated cable networks among adults 18-49, the top 10 based on percent live viewing were, Adult Swim, Nick-at-Nite, Ion, TV Land, TNT, BET, ID, ABC Family, TBS and HGTV. These were also the only networks to have at least 90% of their adult 18-49 audience live. The ranking will change slightly depending on the time period examined, but the top four are almost always the same.

Live viewing matters not simply for the timeliness of viewers seeing a campaign, but equally as important, to minimize commercial avoidance and maximize brand message recall.

Steve Sternberg writes The Sternberg Report, which offers opinions about the television industry. He has more than 30 years of television and video research experience, having served, in past, assenior VP, sales research at Ion Media Networks; executive VP, audience analysis at Magna Global; and executive VP, director of broadcast research at TN Media.