Is the TV sky falling?

There have been a lot of Chicken Littles in our midst over the years, worried about the TV sky falling down upon us.

There have been a lot of Chicken Littles in our midst over the years, worried about the TV sky falling down upon us.

Count me amongst those who have been overly alarmed. I wrote a piece in Strategy back in August 2000, expressing concern over buyers’ inability to reach consumers in Canada’s smaller markets by way of local TV outlets because of deepening satellite penetration. A lot of small-market TV stations have since become financial basket cases for this very reason.

But the medium, as a whole, seems pretty healthy right now. Rob Dilworth, the main research guy at CTV, recently wrote about the parade of doomsday scenarios that have marched past the TV medium over the years; VCR zipping, Death Stars, Internet.

We all saluted, but know what? TV is still the big medium on the block. Dilworth observes that the latest heralded threat is the ‘digital video recorder’ and he quantifies the negative impact at only ‘about 1% per year for five years’ under pretty reasonable penetration circumstances.

The math looks right to me and declines in TV commercial viewing of 1% a year don’t seem too destructive. But I’m a media person and I’m paid to worry. I’m worried that the PVR wasn’t the only new, TV-harming gizmo nestled under the 2003 Christmas tree.

I just finished reading Smart TVs: Measuring The Future, a report that examines a number of new technologies rushing collectively into homes. Released last year by OMD Omnicom’s international media operation, the report contains a long list of head-spinning terminology: digital satellite TV, interactive program guides, digital video recorders, video-on-demand, enhanced TV, HDTV, addressable TV and home networking. The author points out that each of these new technologies is reaching critical mass in the States.

But my principal concern about the wave of new flat screens, wireless TV sets, computers as TVs in drag and handheld units, goes beyond the damage that might be inflicted on TV commercial viewing; it has to do with our industry’s diminished ability to measure who’s watching what.

Canada is no longer a nation of TV diary ‘filler-outers.’ We have become a nation of TV ‘meter-plugger-inners.’ TV media commerce is now conducted in metered audience currency. But in order to suck audience data out of a home, you need to be able to hard-wire a meter into the back of all the TV sets in the home. If one set can’t be hooked up, the whole home must be excluded. The early adaptor homes we really need in sample are being passed over because consumers are buying new TV hardware that has outgrown the current generation of meters.

But thankfully there’s a new kind of meter sitting on BBM’s shelf, ready to go. It’s called the ‘portable people meter’ or PPM for short. This pager-sized unit is carried on the respondent’s person and detects audio station IDs embedded in TV programming.

It’s got a built-in clock so we can figure out when the tuning occurred. It’s got a built-in motion detector so we know if the meter is being used properly. It can be used to pick up exposure to radio signals as well as TV signals. It can detect signals in a sports bar, or at the cottage, or in an airplane, or from a wireless transmitter in the home, or from the fancy new flat screen. It can detect signals that come into the home via cable or satellite or over-the-air or over phone lines.

There are some pains. For example, tuning might accidentally get captured while the unit (sans respondent, who might be showering) is recharging in its dock. And young kids will be a problem, but then young kids have problems with every TV measurement technique invented.

Not everyone is happy about BBM’s new portable people meters. The Association of Canadian Advertisers has concerns that have been clearly and frequently communicated.

Ironically, the PPM’s tendency to capture higher TV tuning levels might be the underlying cause of the ACA’s concerns. Bigger audience ratings could lead to bigger rates and that worries the ACA. Perhaps, left unchecked, broadcasters might try to increase the prices for commercials in their TV shows in lock step with the higher audience levels. But TV buyers can pretty effectively prevent that from happening by simply saying… ‘No!’

And so in summary, new TV technology, which is upsetting the industry because it threatens to reduce commercial viewing, is giving rise to new TV measurement technology, which is upsetting the industry because it threatens to increase commercial viewing.

Who said there’s nothing funny about media?

Rob Young is one of the founders of Toronto’s PHD Canada (formerly HYPN). He can be reached at: