As the fall season begins in earnest with some surprising ratings, the ghost of upfronts past has reappeared, as well as renewed murmurs for "accountability" in television ad sales. Then, Nielsen made two big announcements: that C3, the de facto new currency that measures commercials watched live plus 3 days of playback, would take a week longer to report, and that ratings for multiple airings of a show will be reported in aggregate. In the next two posts, I will investigate how this shift away from temporal metrics may influence future conversations about viewer engagement and the market for television advertising, and if this does actually make anyone more accountable.
Something Old, Something New, Something Illogical
These new metrics signal a quiet but significant change in how viewership is measured. It is significant because it is acknowledging that TV viewing is moving outside the flow of the medium, the temporality rendered less relevant. This is an acknowledgement of changing consumer behavior, but are these changes also moving us closer to metrics that are more about engagement than spectatorship?
Ratings used to be all about quantifying a specific audience at a specific point in time. The theories used to go that, if people were really interested in a program, they would make time to tune in and watch, which meant they were probably watching ads. That still holds true to an extent, but C3 and aggregation of metrics are taking that element out of ratings.
So, does C3 make a better metric for engagement, in addition to commercial watching, than ratings? Maybe. You could make an argument that watching commercials when you are interested enough in a show to record it and play it back days after its aired playing a show back on your DVR mean you are more engaged in the show than simply watching the broadcast.
And what about the aggregate ratings? If the time in which we watch TV doesn't matter, it makes sense to consolidate the ratings, right? Maybe again. From a pure engagement perspective, it makes some degree of sense to lump all viewers together, especially if time is being rendered somewhat irrelevant. The difference between this metric and C3 is that aggregation does not match the logics of the economic makeup of network television. By putting the two together, advertisers on Saturday are not getting their ratings for each day, and would have a harder time assessing the value of the time they had bought.
Engagement & Accountability
Who is accountable to whom with these metrics? If we simplify the value chain to three groups -- networks, advertisers and audiences -- the picture isn't particularly rosy. The aggregate ratings don't seem to do much for anyone: advertisers and networks get the sort of data they need to make the transactions required to keep the show on the air, and audiences, as a result, face the prospect of fewer airings of a program. Nielsen is reviewing it, and I am sort of hoping that they refine it or drop it.
C3 is a little more complex. It may give advertisers a better idea of how many eyeballs they have bought from the networks, but the benefit to the audience is a murky question. One could argue that it either ensures that they hold up their end of the TV bargain by watching ads, and that in turn ensures that those audiences are "rewarded" by getting to see their shows renewed, but that would be somewhat more relevant in an environment where the only value of the audience to advertisers and networks was ratings. In other words, C3 may be part of the engagement puzzle, and it may help advertisers and networks in the ad market, but it still doesn't really capture the actual value of an audience.
I will tackle this in more detail in the conclusion to this piece, which will appear later today, looking at the temporality of television viewing.