Nielsen ratings and commercials

My blog entry about the Nielsen ratings and DVR users prompted several readers to point out an angle I did not address: Not only will Nielsen be reporting on the viewing habits of DVR users, but it will also report whether those users are watching commercials or skipping them.

That, obviously, is what the networks are REALLY interested in finding out. If many viewers are, in fact, zapping ads, the advertisers will surely demand lower rates, and the networks will have little choice but to comply.

It’s not a slam-dunk, though. Some polls suggest that a lot of DVR users don’t skip commercials. As a devoted, highly trained TiVo user, I can’t imagine such a thing, but to each his own, I guess. The generally accepted statistic for ad-skippers is 90 percent, but the networks think that’s high. (They HOPE it’s high.) Nielsen will hopefully shed some light on it.

Surveys also indicate that even among the DVR users who skip ads, they often stop to watch if one catches their eye. To attract those people, advertisers will simply need to make commercials that are more eye-catching.

But what the networks and advertisers who are starting to panic are forgetting is that even among non-DVR users, most people don’t really “watch” commercials. When commercials come on, people channel-surf, go to the bathroom, get a snack, or chat with whoever is in the room with them. Yet advertisers still adhere to the fallacy that because 20 million people watched a show from 8:30-9:00, that means 20 million people saw their ad that ran at 8:43. Unfortunately, there’s not really a way to gauge how many people ACTUALLY watched the commercial and how many ignored it or were out of the room when it aired.

What everyone fears is that as more and more people use DVRs and skip commercials, advertisers will start finding new ways to get our attention, probably through product placement within the TV shows themselves. We envision a future where networks say, “Rather than paying $250,000 for a commercial that many viewers are going to skip, why don’t you pay $300,000 and we’ll make sure the desperate housewives mention your product by name? For another $100,000, we’ll include a shot of one of them actually using it.”

People who make TV shows cringe at the thought. They don’t generally like the networks interfering with the scripts at all, let alone to make crass suggestions like product placement.

Viewers don’t mind in principle, as long as it feels like an organic part of the story. After all, “Want a Coke?” is just as realistic and natural-sounding as “Want a drink?”

But as advertisers become increasingly aggressive in plugging their wares, and as TV networks find their ad revenue dropping because of DVRs, the combined desperation will probably lead to a lot of sloppy product-placement that will impact the quality of the shows, with characters saying things that sound like … well, commercials. (“Want a crisp, refreshing 7-Up?”) Then people will start using their DVRs to skip through the shows altogether, and then where are we?