The explosion in digital multichannel television-and a landscape that's increasingly multiplatform in nature-has made it more difficult for advertising buyers and sellers to negotiate the media maze. And some in the industry are looking for a better road map.
Not only has the advertising community been developing its own interactive-ad research, it's also been pressing Nielsen Media Research and other ratings firms to stay abreast of fast-changing technology developments.
Those who buy and sell advertising time want to better track how viewers watch TV in a convergent digital world rife with multitasking.
Since 1998, Nielsen has been busy updating its research not just on digital cable, but Internet usage and, most recently, use of personal video recorders and interactive TV.
The initial impetus behind Nielsen's progress was the threat of competition from Systems for Measuring and Reporting Television (SMART). That threat disappeared last year, when Statistical Research Inc. folded its proposed national ratings service.
Given that digital technology is "rapidly transforming the media landscape, it is essential to learn how these changes will affect marketing communication, and to develop new methods for measuring the effects of interactivity," TN Media president Scott Butler said.
"Before we inherit old models that are inadequate for an interactive environment," TN will be working with Nielsen and the Addressable Media Coalition "to build the model for how audiences are measured in the future," he added.
Several researchers made passing references to research innovations that may help buyers and sellers better understand today's fast-changing media landscape at October's Myers Forum for Interactive TV Development.
"I think of the Internet as a dress rehearsal for interactive TV," said Advertising Research Foundation president Jim Spaeth.
The conventional wisdom is moving away from measuring households and toward individual viewers, noted eRemote Inc. vice president of engineering David Allport.
Media buyers and sellers in the future must "create market value through I [interactive] media, not eyeball media," Myers Reports Inc. CEO Jack Myers said, defining I-media as interactive advertising, electronic commerce and promotion.
But because interactive TV is still largely in a test phase, OMD USA senior vice president Chris Geraci said there's a lot of work to be done before the technology becomes a must-buy for his clients.
For one, "the technical capabilities have to be significant on systems," he said.
In one respect, advertisers look at these new technologies in the same way they might look at a new cable network-they're holding off on buying until the new platforms catch on. Typically, national advertisers and their agencies don't get interested in a fledgling programmer until it reaches the 20 million homes plateau, various agencies said.
"They've got to reach some sort of critical mass," said Stacey Lynn Koerner, vice president of broadcast research at TN.
Added OMD's Geraci, "It remains to be seen what the various tests bear out" for the participating agencies and clients.
There are other reasons for reticence, according to Koerner.
"Most advertisers are not even sure what to do with it," she said. "We're testing it too." Late in October, TN announced the "iKnowledge Center," a media-learning lab dedicated to evaluating digital and interactive media. The unit will work with such interactive providers as ACTV Inc., Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc., RespondTV Inc. and WorldGate Communications Inc, said TN's chief knowledge officer, David Ernst.
At Starcom MediaVest Group-whose clients include Kraft Foods, General Motors Corp. and Procter & Gamble Co.-global director of accountability Bruce Goerlich called for better tracking of viewing behavior. His shop has long been spending "significant" sums on such research.
One problem in evaluating these studies is that, to date, most ITV test research has been proprietary, said Carat North America CEO David Verklin. To move things along at a faster clip, he urged the ITV industry and the ad community to form "learning alliances" and share some of their findings. (Carat's accounts include Alberto- Culver, Pfizer and Midas.)
ESPN/ABC Sports president of customer marketing and sales Ed Erhardt also suggested more collaboration among programmers, clients and agencies.
In terms of audience measurement, however, traditional ratings and measuring the newer digital-era media are "two different worlds," said Nielsen general manager of national services Susan Whiting.
The biggest obstacle to developing audience research on ITV is "understanding what the requirements are," she said.
Whiting added Nielsen's national business unit to her responsibilities in early November, replacing Buzz Moschetto, who now will focus on such initiatives as improving the firm's national ratings sample and gauging the impact of new media, Nielsen CEO John Dimling said in a letter to clients.
Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus said the researcher is still is in the installation phase for its local People Meter test in Boston and has not yet reached its 300-home target. After that, data will be reported for one year and compared with the present data tabulated from set meters and diaries, he said.
Nielsen's Active/Passive Meter test, which began in 500 homes in 1998, is continuing in a dozen Northeastern markets, said Loftus. Clients will "soon" receive reports on the active/passive audio encoding and signature-recognition results, he said. The A/P meter is in half of that sample. In the remaining 250 homes, the A/P meter and set meter are operating side-by-side for comparison purposes.
Nielsen has also installed a TV/PC convergence panel in 100 homes; is developing software to measure TV/Internet usage in homes with PCs that run on Microsoft Corp.'s "Windows" operating system; and is creating new research panels for other emerging technologies, such as TiVo Inc. personal video recorders.
For the latter projects, Loftus said the next step for Nielsen is to get agreement from its clientele on "the new rules of the road"-or the preferred means of integrating the new data into current ratings reports.
Nielsen will also contribute financial and research resources to Arbitron Co.'s upcoming Portable People Meter test in Philadelphia. Intended to measure more than in-home viewing, the PPM test will initially involve more than 300 of the pager-sized devices, said Arbitron vice president of sales and marketing Henry Laura.
The meters are being deployed in Wilmington, Del., during the current quarter; by late next year, the sample will have expanded into Philadelphia.
For its part, Next Century Media CEO Bill Harvey said his company is developing software that would enable set-top boxes for both addressable advertising as well as TV audience measurement.
TN Media senior vice president Howard Nass and Zenith Media executive vice president Bonita LeFlore are among those in the pro-People Meter camp.
"I'm all for a local People Meter that works right," said Nass. Nielsen is in the early test stages in Boston, he said. However, there aren't any announced broadcast or cable-system sign-ups yet.
And use of set-top boxes on any meaningful scale isn't imminent, Nass indicated.
Another researcher, ADcom Information Services Inc., continues to be a Nielsen competitor on the local cable- ratings front, albeit one that's limited to a handful of markets-Jacksonville, Fla., Dallas and San Francisco-and one MSO, now that AT&T Broadband has acquired
MediaOne Group Inc. ADcom has devised its own system for estimating age and gender demographic data, one that doesn't involve what CEO Bill Livek said are the "inadequacies" of diaries or "the cost hurdles" of People Meters.
After ADcom's passive set meter tallies household viewing, participating households are contacted by phone, with someone in each home then "assigning the viewing to the appropriate [family] members," Livek said.
Earlier this year, the American Association of Advertising Agencies released a list of what it considered the top 12 media issues. Two of those were ratings-related-local television ratings and the TV sweep periods.
"There's a lot of discussion going on" about the different approaches to local ratings, Nass said. "The buyer, the client and the media [sides] need to get together to devise a way to do this, then go to Nielsen or others and make it happen."
He compared the situation to the tense situation in Israel: "It's sort of like the peace process in the Middle East. We need all three parties to participate."
No Molotov cocktails have been tossed in the name of the thorny ratings issue, but occasionally there have been some harsh words exchanged.