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Continual Lather

Continual Lather

I was sick and stayed at home recently. I’ve been blessed that I haven’t had many of those days to remind me that daytime television is still pretty much a wasteland for males. And I’ve also been blessed that my overall health and well-being has far outstripped the soap opera genre, which is reeling from lower viewership, slashed casts, evaporation of entire shows and the creeping crippling of the time shift.

The DVR has been a savior of sorts, but it’s the cure that kills. Time-shifting and automatic recording have allowed a greater audience to stay up to date with their favorite daytime serials. True, VCRs served the same purpose, but they were a hassle. You can’t start watching a 1 p.m. show at 1:20 if it’s on tape, and you can’t watch All My Children at 8:30 if you’re trying to record “Lost” at the same time. The DVR is also popular because it allows viewers to skip through commercials.

Advertisers are still trying to come to terms with the DVR effect. Sure, we still know roughly how many people watched it live, and a pretty decent idea how many people time-shifted a show. Some are even acting on formulae that provides a conversion ratio: a live viewer is X% likely to get an ad impression, where a time-shifter is Y% likely to see the spot. The X-Y factor for those viewers makes the difference between paying full price in the Cost Per Thousand (CPM) and getting a discount.

Dear Diary

Let’s back up a moment. The Nielsen ratings had never been perfect, but for a long time that’s all there were. Television ad rates were set based on viewership levels measured during three major and one minor period of the year. They’re still known as “sweeps”, and they happen in November, May, February, and July (in order of importance.) During those four-week intervals, targeted homes get a diary to fill out, indicating what each member of the household watches. It’s arbitrary at times, and in many cases relies on the memory of the viewer to backfill the entries. There’s also a perception bias that creeps in, where some Nielsen families “fib” about what they watch. Which makes your family look “smarter” to the survey team: Hard-hitting news on “60 Minutes” or a parade of candid crotch-knocks on “America’s Funniest Videos?”

The diaries weren’t perfect, but they were made better with the advent of the People Meter. Larger markets (the biggest 60 or so) are “metered,” meaning that on any given day about 440 homes in that coverage area are hooked up to a box that eavesdrops on actual viewing habits. 440 doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is a statistically significant enough number to provide useful information in aggregate. Every few months, a percentage of those meters are moved around, and care is taken to ensure they approximate the blend of geographic, demographic and cultural diversity in the market.

These meters provide overnight results to stations that subscribe to the ratings, giving instant feedback about what does and doesn’t resonate on a large scale. Overnight ratings are often responsible for the cancellation of shows that have only aired once. They’re also responsible for the hyper-sensitivity of local news operations, which use the numbers to inform their gut instincts about whether that lead story was a grabber, and whether it ought to be followed up the next day.

What the meters don’t give us is meaningful information about the “splits.” How many women 25-54 watched that show? How many teens? There aren’t enough in the daily samples to give a decent context.

Meter Maids

When you combine the diaries and the meters, in theory you get to extrapolate one data set and interpolate the other. The meters give you a sense of what people are really watching, which allows you to compare to the diary data to glean how many of those viewers fit certain desirable profiles.

And that’s where soap operas can once again demonstrate a relevance that will revive the genre, or at the very least provide a value beyond just the revenue generated by ads in the time slots.

The daytime serial falls in one of the most-studied time periods, because the audience has traditionally been homemakers who are key decision makers for entire classes of household consumables. (The soap in the soap opera.) There are reams of data about these viewers, what they like, and why. The genre is also one of the stickiest forms of entertainment – with loyal viewers willing to invest 150-300 minutes per week into each show they follow (80-200 minutes for the DVR people who skip the breaks and duplicate scenes.)

The goal ought to be two-fold: re-engage these viewers to want to watch the ads, and use that pre-existing knowledge of the viewers to inform other metrics.

Lather After Hours

Many shows are attempting to extend the viewer experience beyond the original timeslot. Shows like “Lost” have entire strands of storyline happening in a world of bogus websites, full of extra clues and Easter Eggs for diehard fans to discover. “The Office” has built several incarnations of the Dunder-Mifflin website, and has created a community of slacker non-employees who can engage in zany non-antics with very real virtual non-co-workers. (Which is precisely the vibe of the show.) Or if you just want to see additional out-takes from this week’s episode of “Psych,” you’re just a couple of clicks away.

Other shows, like “Mad Men,” have a fan base so loyal that viewers started impersonating characters on sites like Twitter. Not knowing what to do at first, AMC asked for the accounts to be shut down. Most shows would kill for a rabid enough fan base that people would want to interact with characters outside of the box.

What genre do you think has just such a fan base?

What makes this such an intriguing proposition is you don’t really need people running Erica Kane’s character 24 hours a day. You don’t need to interact with the viewers. Just allow some of the “conversation” that takes place between characters to spill over into real channels. A couple of younger characters might have occasional conversations with each other on Twitter, and real fans will sign up to eavesdrop. Twitter would be ideal for this, because you could glean some data from the profiles about who signs up from which regions of the country, and you sell to women the idea they can have those little love notes sent via SMS to their cell phones.

Maybe you do some of it through traditional email. Sure, you don’t want to punish the regular viewer by having key elements only occur off-screen, but you can have the characters talking about their exchange the next day. “What did you mean when you wrote _______?”

The final piece is how you get viewers to eavesdrop.

You leave the clues in the commercial breaks. Maybe a 10-second slate in the middle of a break gives you an email address. Send a message and you can opt-in to emails to and from that character. Maybe you embed the coded email addresses within some of the spots themselves – a form of sponsorship that doesn’t involve plot redirection or product placement, just an inducement to stop on that ad long enough to scribble the email address.

Now you’re beginning to build a cross-functional dataset that gives you comparisons between traditional ads, Social Media ads, and Social Media content. You have the same audience captured to be the Rosetta Stone between online and off. That may be the first ongoing benchmark that delivers the comparative Return on Investment for traditional and non-traditional marketing. What you haven’t really had is a dataset large enough that builds on a loyal following.

Take the most rabid soap audience, and find a way to feed it off hours. The Continual Lather will wash away red ink.

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