The Clamor for Commercial Ratings

NEW YORK Back in April, MTV media shop MindShare and its client Unilever co-produced a microseries starring Alicia Keys designed to support the launch of a new Dove body-wash product called Go Fresh. The series, which aired in commercial pods during episodes of MTV’s hit series, The Hills, did something that traditional commercials on MTV (and many other cable channels for that matter) rarely did in the past: It retained between 93 percent and 100 percent of its program audience.

By contrast, before the start of last season, MTV was one of the poorer performing networks when it came to holding audiences through commercial breaks with an average retention rate of just 85 percent from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m., the time slot where many of its marquee programs air.

But with the switch to commercial ratings last year, MTV knew it had to do better or face defections and lost revenue from advertisers looking for better audience delivery to their ads.

In order to tackle the problem the network formed a task force, comprised of staffers across every key department, including research, programming, ad sales and traffic. With guidance from the task force, the network tested and created dozens of nontraditional ad techniques like the Dove microseries, and tinkered with both the number and lengths of commercial pods throughout the its schedule.

The result, according to Sean Moran, MTV’s evp of ad sales, was a spike in audience retention rates for ads across the network, which climbed from 88 percent two years ago to 93 percent currently. Even better results were achieved during the 10 p.m.-11 p.m. time period, where the average retention rate climbed 10 percentage points to 95 percent, which is in line with broadcast network prime time. Over time, said Moran, “we think we can get the entire network to 95 percent.”

MTV’s effort reflects what buyers and sellers alike say is perhaps the most important change to occur as a result of the switch to the commercial ratings system known as C3 — an industry-wide focus on developing alternative ad formats that will entice more viewers to sit through commercials without changing channels.

“The idea that we are working with advertisers and agencies to maximize commercial audience retention is a major step forward,” said David Poltrack, chief research officer at CBS.

“There’s more work to be done, but no doubt there has been improvement,” said Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer, WPP’s GroupM, which oversees media agencies Mediadge:cia, MindShare and MediaCom. He said that overall, cable has boosted its audience retention rate for commercials from 91-93 percent. “The biggest problem was that before C3 there really wasn’t an economic incentive to change behavior,” Scanzoni said.

And the focus isn’t just on prime time. During the past season CBS, at the urging of agencies and clients, moved the first commercial break in Late Show With David Letterman into the first 15 minutes of the broadcast after years of delaying it to close to midnight.

Why the delay? Because late at night the first break “is a signal to viewers to turn the set off and go to bed,” said Poltrack. For advertisers, the problem was audiences tend to fall off sharply between 11:30 p.m. and midnight, so the delay cost them viewers. By moving up the break into the first quarter hour of the show, the audience for the ads climbed approximately 10 percent compared to two years ago, Poltrack said.

Like MTV, other networks created new departments to focus, for the first time, on maximizing audiences for commercials, including NBC, which created a West Coast-based unit to address the issue.