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Taken to Tasking

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Anew term has entered the lexicon: dual tasking, or, as some call it, multitasking. For example, my 14-year-old daughter sits at her personal computer, while watching television out of the corner of her eye. She even talks on the phone at the same time—triple tasking!

I ask her why she does this.

"It's fun, Daddy," she says. "I can chat with two different people at the same time."

Half of U.S. households use a PC at home, and the bulk of those users are logged on to the Internet. About half of that group has a computer in the same room as a television. Multitasking, the absorption of multiple messages simultaneously, has become habitual for many people. This has major implications for the communication of advertising, as well as other forms of content.

Research to date shows that TV viewership remains healthy as computer usage grows. Which might lead advertisers to falsely conclude that the World Wide Web is not a threat but merely an add-on media form, much as television emerged 50 years ago as an extension of radio. Television did not kill radio, but TV profoundly changed the way people use it.

Similarly, the Net is having a profound effect on television in multitasking situations. Gone is the couch potato who sits there absorbing everything that is shown on the small screen, including those critical commercials. So we ask ourselves: How can the Internet complement and enhance the impact of TV programs and vice versa?

Research is the bedrock of better communications decisions. Zenith Media just produced Wave 4 of our Internet study, which was in the field in July. One striking piece of information: The rating of Survivor on CBS was 15 percent higher in Internet homes than in homes without Internet access. In fact, the program did better by far than any other show in those households. It seems a surprise, until you drill down a bit.

Looking deeper at the data, CBS executed a successful strategy that proactively used these viewers' multitasking behavior. It integrated this hot summer show with its Survivor Web site, on which viewers could find continuous updates on contestants and also cast votes on who should go and who should stay. The network created a form of transaction involvement in the drama every week on the Web.

CBS made a success of the integration with the TV program. We think this had a positive effect on the ratings.

Although never reaching Survivor's status as a pop-culture icon, Big Brother experienced similar success in wired homes, as did ABC's Who Wants to Be a Million aire. There are many other examples.

The critical challenge is simple: We must convert the threat of the Internet into an opportunity by using the Web to draw viewers into a program and the advertising within it.

Advertisers have smartly jumped on the bandwagon by adding online enhancements to TV purchases. Our client Verizon Wireless sponsored a "Cast Your Vote" poll on this year's Miss America Web site. More than 80,000 votes were tallied on the night of the broadcast. Our sponsored area on the Web site generated more than 700,000 impressions in three days.

On ABC's Millionaire, we linked a bonus Web site question to the Verizon Wireless spot that appeared in the program. Web site visitors received points for responding to a question, the answer to which could only be found in the Verizon Wireless ad.

Does the Internet pose a threat to television? You bet. Can it also offer an opportunity to amplify both TV and Web site advertising? You bet.

We need to learn more about the communication effect of multitasking so the threat becomes an opportunity. We need innovative, integrated communications planning that draws viewers to the program and its Web site simultaneously. Of course, that only scratches the surface of the potential of truly interactive video communication. But it is a beginning.

People spent the first 50 years of television watching passively. Now that's changing rapidly. Our challenge is to keep up and overtake these viewers, wherever they go, and whatever they do.

Rich Hamilton is U.S. CEO of Zenith Media in New York.