Cable boxes identify bargain and lemon commercial slots

Second-by-second data allows analysts to get a closer look at viewing habits

WASHINGTON — Advertisers who shell out big bucks for an ad that runs during a popular television show might be buying a lemon, a new study finds. In the future, detailed data collected from digital cable boxes may help advertisers bargain-hunt for the best deals, researchers suggested August 3 at the Joint Statistical Meetings.

Prices for commercial spots are primarily determined by the size of the audience that watches a particular show. Ads that run during blockbusters like Grey’s Anatomy and American Idol are much pricier than ads during less popular shows. But a show’s audience size may not be the best way to judge commercial viewership, study author David Schweidel of the University of Wisconsin–Madison said.

Schweidel analyzed the viewing habits of people in a large West Coast metropolitan area. Data collected from cable boxes each second during prime time uncovered what shows (and commercials) people were watching on five networks, and how choices changed when the programming went to a commercial.

Conventional wisdom says that 5 to 10 percent of the audience is lost during commercial breaks, Schweidel said. “On average, that’s true,” he said. But the new analysis turned up cases where the audience level dropped by more than 20 percent. “That’s a big difference in exposure for your ad,” he said.

For most shows, commercial audiences were lower than show audiences, and some shows fared worse than others. The cooking reality television show Hell’s Kitchen, for instance, drew 2.96 percent of the monitored cable box traffic, but its commercial audience was 2.42 percent, an 18 percent drop. Relatively high audience retention came from the drama NUMB3RS, which drew 1.90 percent of traffic and held on to 1.78 percent during the commercials. Because of these different drop-off rates, using audience size alone to predict how many people view a commercial “doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Schweidel said.

Shows like Hell’s Kitchen and Samantha Who? — both of which were relatively bad at maintaining audience levels during commercials — might be lemons from an ad agency’s perspective. On the other hand, shows like Aliens in America and Jericho had smaller audiences but relatively high advertising retention. Those shows may represent real bargains.

Commercial audience size varied across genre, across networks and even depended on time of day, the study found. But some generalizations could be made: People were less likely to avoid a commercial late at night. The length of the commercial break and whether other commercials were simultaneously on other channels also affected how many people stayed tuned. And overall, dramas did a better job at holding audiences through commercial breaks than did reality television shows, the analysis showed.

“Ultimately, if one had this data across all parts of the country, it would give us a deeper understanding of viewer behavior across the day,” comments Mike Bloxham, of the Center for Media Design at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

One limitation to this extensive dataset is that it’s just tuning data, and it doesn’t necessarily mean a person was actually watching the commercial. Other types of analyses that measure more detailed information, possibly tracking viewers’ eyes, will be needed to tell if someone is actually watching a commercial, Schweidel said.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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