TV Audience Fragmentation's Inescapable Reality
The past 15 years have brought an extraordinary fragmentation of audiences due to a fast-expanding array and diversity of new-media products, channels and platforms. Just within television -- the largest consumer media platform by far in the U.S. in terms of both audience time and advertising expenditures -- over that time we've seen a tenfold increase in the number of channels and a hundred-fold increase in the number of programs and episodes.
What was once a take it or leave it daily special menu of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and overcooked peas is now an on-demand restaurant row of everything from three-star Michelin gourmet cooking to ethnic delights to comfort food. No wonder more Americans watch more live TV today than they did fifteen years ago. According to Nielsen, total TV viewing time and viewing time per person is up more than 10% over that time, an extraordinary statistic given that the Internet, a big part of media habits today, wasn't even competing for audience attention back then.
While all this new choice is without question a great thing for consumers, it has a distinct downside for marketers trying to reach their target audiences. Audience fragmentation makes buying media harder and more complex. You need to evaluate more media choices. You need to maintain more relationships. You need to traffic more ad spots to more partners. You have more competition for larger properties. Per-campaign reach goes down. It's harder to avoid concentrating message frequency on the heaviest TV viewers. Fragmentation also impacts the quality of the media product a buyer can deliver for his or her clients, as the ability to guarantee perfect content environments diminishes significantly.
Unfortunately for the industry, TV content and TV audiences will never be as homogenous as they were in the 70s and 80s. That's reality and not going to change. The only way to deal with -- or overcome -- the challenges of fragmentation is to adjust our approach to TV media buying, selling and measurement. Here's what I mean:
Recognize that audience heterogeneity can be a good thing for targeting. Today, TV advertisers can reach precise audiences in highly contextual content. Fifteen years ago we didn't have vehicles like HGTV and Food Network to reach fixer-uppers and folks who love to cook. Data is helping mass marketers develop tighter and tighter segmentations of their target consumers. Isn't it time we helped them leverage those insights in TV advertising?
Challenge the outdated, anecdotal truisms that drive so much of our industry. Fragmentation of audiences not just by program and channel, but by daypart, now means that significant concentrations of target audiences can now be found in non-intuitive places. Data from Nielsen shows us that both billiards on ESPN and FOX News in certain dayparts draw Hispanic viewers in extraordinarily high concentration and volumes. Maybe it's time to throw out some of our outdated anecdotal truisms about audiences and their behaviors, and lean into empiricism?
Recognize that delivering scaled reach, and buying shows with low average ratings, are not mutually exclusive. Buying spots on lower-rated shows doesn't mean you can't deliver campaigns with massive scale and reach; quite the opposite, in fact. As noted media planner and researcher Erwin Ephron preached to us years ago, it's actually much easier to build reach on TV by intelligently assembling spots on lots of lower-rated shows than by buying a few big shows in prime time, since high-rated prime time also tends to deliver an inordinate amount of duplication among heavy TV viewers. Yes, fragmentation means that effective TV campaigns will require many more spots than they used to do. There isn't an alternative without sacrificing advertiser's best interests.
Stop focusing on bulk GRPs. The gross rating point is a very valuable and resilient metric that will not only be with us for a very long time, but will find lots of value and applicability as it is extended into online ad campaigns as well. However, the GRP alone, when it is not qualified by target rating points and incremental reach points, is as meaningless as only counting empty calories when trying to measure nutrition in a diet. Delivering 100 ads per person to 5% of a target audience watching TV in a two-week campaign should never be valued the same as delivering 10 ads each to 50% of the target audience on TV. Same GRPs, massively different value and results for an advertiser. Think I've made up an extreme and ludicrous example? Analyze TV campaigns for some recent movie releases using Nielsen's AudienceWatch.
We must learn to embrace, leverage and exploit the reality of a fragmented TV media world. It is essential to the long-term health of television advertising, and it won't be painless. But, like other markets in transition, those who move early and do it well will have an advantage. Those who don't, won't.