Category Archives: TV

No Way Do Two Thirds of Americans Have HDTV. No Way.

Sorry, but I’m willing to bet this piece of research is completely wrong. I’d want to see the actual questionnaire, but here’s what I’ll assume until then:

Many, many, many people have no idea whether or not they have HDTV. Two main reasons:

  1. There is a serious lack of understanding among non-techie respondents about the terms “digital,” “high definition,” and “HDTV.” I’ll bet $20 that at least 20% of the population thinks they have HDTV because they bought a $40 conversion box for the digital transition.
  2. Because for years now, everything from network dramas to local newscasts has been opening with an onscreen logo that says something like “in HD where available,” or “presented in HD,” just like they used to do the exact same thing for stereo … only now they’ve also gone and incorporated it right into their station logos.

That’s right. Viewers with old 4×3 standard definition TV sets are constantly shown on-screen graphics that, in combination with the fact they bought conversion boxes, has them convinced they’re watching HDTV:

“Of course I have HDTV! It says HDTV right there on the screen!”

It’s difficult to research a topic when respondent confusion is this widespread. It’s not completely impossible, but it’s really, really hard. I can think of a couple of ways to try to do it, but they’re so cumbersome (as in, “look behind your TV and tell me the model number”) that they’re just not going to work.

Oh, and let’s not forget that there’s also God-only-knows how many people — this would include many of our parents, I’ll wager — who have HDTV sets but are watching standard definition broadcasts on them.

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Filed under data quality, Market Research, TV

The Market Research Failure Behind NBC’s Jay Leno Debacle: Part II

Welcome back for the second part of this post.

NBC clearly  had a number of problems to solve. Lackluster ratings for the programs they were airing in prime time was one; the fact they’d promised the Tonight Show to Conan to keep him from leaving the network was another, as they’d have to pay him something like $40 million if they broke that contract; the fact Leno didn’t want to retire was a third. So, brilliant plan on NBC’s part: drop all the expensive 10 pm dramas that cost maybe $3 million per episode and replace them with the Leno show, for something like $2 million per week. Save a fortune in production costs, save $40 million in Conan payouts, and “manage for the margins,” as everyone reports NBC’s Jeff Zucker, pictured at right, planned to do.

Here’s where the research finally comes in: NBC apparently did the math, figured out what sort of ratings Leno would need at 10 pm in order to make the show profitable for the network via ad sales, and conducted viewer research to make sure enough people would watch the show to produce that rating. I’m sure that consisted of asking people variations of “what would you watch if all of the following programs were on at 10 pm,” and running down each night of the week, with Leno inserted in place of each NBC drama that was then airing. The results of that research seem to have been pretty accurate; the network was promising advertisers ratings that were pretty similar to what Leno was actually getting. They were embarrassingly low, I think, but they were around the base level that NBC had promised. The failure of imagination is that they just don’t appear to have asked much in the way of logical follow-ups of the people who said they wouldn’t be watching Jay at 10 — i.e., the vast majority of people. Questions like:

  • Do you watch any NBC shows at 10 pm right now?
  • After you watch one of them, what do you watch at 11? And then at 11:30?
  • How often do you find out about one program by seeing a promo during another?
  • If your favorite NBC show no longer existed, what do you think you would watch at 10 if these were your remaining choices? And then at 11? And 11:30?
  • When you watch an 11:00 newscast, do you always watch the same station? Or do you watch different stations at different times?
  • Do you ever decide to watch an 11:00 newscast because of a promo you saw earlier in the evening?
  • Do you ever decide to watch an 11:30 or 12:30 late night show because of a promo you saw earlier in the evening?

(You can make an argument that they should have been asking a whole series of other questions as well,  like “Is Jay Leno even a little bit funny,” and “Would you rather watch Jay Leno or that guy singing ‘Pants on the Ground’,” or “What the hell were we thinking when we gave the Tonight Show to Leno and not Letterman in the first place all those years ago,” and “Hey what’s that over there oh my god look out it’s Johnny Carson’s ghost and he’s coming at you with a crowbar,” but that’s probably inappropriate here.)

I think if they’d thought to ask those questions, and had the imagination to work through what the answers met (and shared the data with the affiliates), they’d have foreseen the future: the folks who used to watch NBC’s 10 pm programming are now watching something else at 10, and they’re not turning the channel back at 11, or 11:30, or, in some cases, maybe not at all. I really think promos are critical, especially in a world with hundreds of channels and no one reading TV Guide. If I’m not watching your 10 pm show on Wednesday, I don’t know what you’ve got going on in your 8 pm sitcoms on Thursday. If I don’t watch your 10 pm show on Friday, I might not have any idea that you’re airing the wildcard NFL games on Saturday. (Seriously, who knew the Jets/Bengals and Dallas/Philadelphia games were on NBC last week? Complete surprise in my house.) When I’m watching less on your network in general, I’m not seeing you promote your new shows, or new episodes of existing ones — I’m getting nothing, and you, my soon-to-be-owned-by-Comcast friends: you are in a death spiral.

It’s worth noting this wasn’t solely Leno-related: local news itself has been suffering greatly in recent years, and losing its lead in was sure to kill it (at least temporarily) in some markets. I touched on this briefly near the end of Part I. Talk about your market research failures: each market has three or more stations all bringing you the same news you can’t use: the same overhyped “team coverage” of the same piddly winter storm, the same drug-related shooting  nowhere near your home or office, the same fire at the same house with the same interviews with the same neighbors, and all of them in a race to cut costs by dumping whatever talent they still have with a connection to the community or an ability to actually report. Who needs it?

So, how does this all end? Looks like it’ll be with Conan leaving the network and Leno back on at 11:30, unfortunately. In a fair world, it would end with Jeff Zucker and Jay Leno both out of jobs, but that strikes me as unlikely, especially considering how much NBC enjoys mediocrity these days. Could they have avoided all of this with some smartly designed research? Truly, probably not. I think they were hell-bent on this path and wouldn’t have paid much attention to any data contradicting what they already decided they “knew” — that America loves Leno and that he’d be a surefire hit at 10. Which, come to think of it, is another failure of imagination — the inability to imagine that you might just be wrong.

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Filed under Conan, Failure of imagination, Leno, Market Research, TV

The Market Research Failure Behind NBC’s Jay Leno Debacle: Part I

We spend a lot of time here talking about the quality of the research we all see being conducted, and about the respondent experience, and about how it may be difficult to trust the data some of the panel vendors are getting back because of their problems in those areas — if only strange, unrepresentative people are willing to take your survey, how representative can it be of the population as a whole?

We don’t, however, spend very much time looking at the other problems market researchers can run into, and I think the NBC television network ran into a really big one of those when they ran whatever research they ran on moving Jay Leno’s show to 10 pm.  (Some may question if they ran any research at all, but they seem to have accurately predicted the ratings he’d receive, so let’s be nice and assume they did.) It’s really a simple problem — a failure of imagination, basically — but to understand what I mean, it’s going to be necessary to understand how the American television broadcast system operates. I’m not sure how well this is understood outside America, or, for that matter, within the country, either. That’s what I’m going to write about today: the underlying system and the reason the Leno experiment failed. The next post will explain the market research implications.

Some of the explanation that follows is going to be too simplistic for some of you: I’ve tried to write an explanation that would also explain the American TV business for some of my non-US readers, who may have a different system where they’re from. I think NBC’s failure is hard to understand if you don’t understand the network/affiliate relationship, though, so here it is. If you get bored, scroll down a bit.

The United States has been divided into something like 200 local TV markets. A market is essentially the area surrounding a particular city. Some are geographically huge, others geographically tiny, but in general, it’s the area that looks to a particular major city. Within each market, there are a number of local TV stations competing with each other. Some are affiliated with networks, others are independent; for this discussion, we can ignore the independent ones. Some stations are owned by the networks themselves; most are not. The three major broadcast networks are ABC, CBS, and NBC; Fox is the fourth network, and because it doesn’t program as many hours in the day as the others, we’re going to ignore it as well. In most of the markets, each network has an affiliated station. Each of them (like all TV stations) makes most of their money by selling advertisements on the programming they air. Now, some of that programming is stuff they produce themselves — the local newscast, for instance. Other programming is syndicated and purchased from distributors — the Oprah Winfrey show would be an example. Finally, the network itself provides a lot of programming, mixed in with the station’s own content throughout the day — network morning news might be followed by a locally produced or syndicated talk show and a local noon newscast; the network then might provide some afternoon soap operas before more local syndicated fare and local evening news. Then comes the national network newscast, followed by an hour of local local time often used for syndicated game shows and celebrity “news” shows, and finally, the important part of our story: evening “prime time” entertainment shows, followed by the local 11 pm newscast, and of course, starting at 11:35 pm, the late night shows.

During the programming the local station provides, they sell most of the commercial slots themselves; during the network shows, it’s the other way around, with the network selling the time to national advertisers and the station getting a small percentage of those commercial slots to sell to local advertisers. (This is why you’ll see a terrible commercial for a local used car dealer in the middle of your favorite network program.) In days gone by, the networks paid the affiliates to air their programs; these days, those payments are stopping, and in some cases, reversing, with the stations now paying the network for the privilege of airing their programs. The prices the stations get to charge for the advertisements they sell time for depend entirely on the number of people watching the show, as determined by the Nielsen ratings. If a show gets a lot of viewers, the commercials cost a lot of money. Important to know: some of these commercial breaks also include promotional spots for the local upcoming programming — during a 10 pm prime time network drama, for instance, you might hear something like “After CSI, stay tuned for Channel 3 Eyewitness News! Don’t miss tonight’s top story — we’ll tell you which local restaurant is killing its customers with tainted food!” You’ll also see network promos — “After your late local news, don’t miss David Letterman, with tonight’s guest former President Clinton!”

So: in a perfect world, the network provides very popular programming that gets people to watch their affiliated stations and see all those promos, which produces great ratings for everything, and as a result, everyone makes money. The 11 pm news has long been a cash cow for local affiliates, who benefited from a strong network prime time lineup and kept those viewers for their late news, where they sold all the ads and did very, very well. You’d think people would just turn the channel at 11:00 and watch whichever local newscast they liked best, but in reality, many viewers don’t seem to feel that strongly about the shows and are easily swayed to watch one or another based on the promos they see and by simple inertia. All three local affiliates are going to be covering the same upcoming storm and the same local shooting and the same warehouse fire at 11, so why change the channel? (Indeed, why watch any of them, but that’s another post for another blog.) In any case, this is the root of NBC’s problem: putting Leno on at 10 destroyed their prime time lineup, which destroyed 11 pm news ratings, which removed more ad revenue from the stations, which are already paying to air this junk in the first place. Angry affiliates do not make for a happy network.

(How angry? This study that I just saw now, right after this post initially went live, says affiliates lost 1/4 of their late news audience (“in a key advertising demo”) from November 2008 to November 2009, and another 3 months of Leno would have cost the affiliates another $22 million in lost ad revenues. Ouch.)

Next time: how NBC’s failure of imagination led to this mess, and a look at the questions I bet they didn’t ask their respondents.

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Filed under Conan, Failure of imagination, Leno, Market Research, TV