A decade ago, when cable was starting to gain serious traction as an advertising medium, CBS paid Nielsen many thousands in additional fees to produce specialized research designed to show that cable was the land of channel surfers, who tuned out every time a commercial came on the air.
Broadcast networks, by contrast (or so they asserted), was the land of loyal viewers, who tuned in for the content and stayed through the ads as well.
Ten years later, broadcast networks still have some of the most loyal audiences—what's left of them that is. But some of those viewers have migrated to cable, and they don't all have itchy trigger fingers.
In fact, the audience with the longest staying power in prime time television today belongs to a cable channel: Disney's SOAPnet. Perhaps the network has a built-in advantage: Soap opera fans have a reputation for being the most loyal devotees of any genre on the small screen. Soaps make the point for appointment TV.
Older-skewing (50-plus) and younger-skewing (kids) networks dominate the top 10. Only three networks fall outside that general trend: NBC, Lifetime Movie Network and SOAPnet, all with 40-something median ages in prime time, according to a recent report by Magna Global.
The data CBS had Nielsen collect was and still is called "length of tune," or LOT for short. And it's defined as the average consecutive viewing minutes that an audience tunes to a network or program service before changing the channel.
Not surprisingly, a longer length of tune is more desirable, researchers say. That's because the longer viewers stays with a network, the more likely they are to sit through commercials. Whether they're actually paying attention to those spots is another question altogether, one that LOT data doesn't address.
Still, buyers and sellers say the data is useful and, thanks to recent innovations in the way Nielsen crunches data, is a lot easier to come by.
Tim Brooks, executive vice president, research, Lifetime, says that anybody with Nielsen's N-Power system, which provides access to respondent-level data from the ratings company's national household sample can now do LOT analysis at a desktop computer. "The data always existed, but it was very hard to get at for many years. It cost a great deal of money and was old by the time you got it."
As a group, the six broadcast networks still have a higher average length of tune than the 50 cable networks measured by Nielsen. The average LOT (prime time, households) for the first half of 2003 for the broadcast nets is 22.3 minutes. For the cable nets, the average is 16.1 minutes.
Dragging down the cable average, of course, are networks with largely short-form programs like MTV and VH1.
The only broadcast networks among the top 10 video services in Nielsen's LOT ranking, though, are CBS and NBC. Fox and ABC are 12th and 13th, respectively, and UPN and The WB are 20th and 21st.
The gap narrows considerably if you compare the broadcast networks with selected groups of cable networks, such as general-entertainment networks, where the broadcast advantage in LOT narrows to about a minute and a half. Among women 18 to 49, the LOT for the broadcast networks is 23.8 minutes vs. 21.8 minutes for the top five cable networks in the demo (Lifetime, TNT, TBS, USA and TLC).
Broadcasters tend to use LOT data in a pitch against cable. The cable networks use it against each other. Fox News, for example, has pointed to its longer LOT vs. CNN's. According to a Lifetime analysis for the first six months of the year, FNC's household LOT was 20 minutes, vs. CNN's 15.1 minutes.
"One of the things we'll work on is increasing the time spent viewing," CNN News Group President Jim Walton acknowledged during the TV critics press tour recently.
At the same time, he said CNN reaches significantly more viewers for a shorter period of time than Fox.
But Lifetime's Brooks says that's just the point. He contends that high reach with a low LOT is "false reach": A whole lot of viewers being counted as "reached" within a given period of time are probably tuning in for just a couple minutes and surfing off before watching any commercials. And in an ad-driven world, what's the point of that?
So where's the cutoff between good LOT and bad LOT? In Brooks's view, "something in the mid-20-minute range is really desirable for an advertiser because you're guaranteed pretty good exposure to your commercials. Once you get below 20 minutes, there's a good chance viewers aren't staying through commercial pods. And below 10 minutes, forget it."
That analysis doesn't get endorsed at MTV, where first half '03 household LOT averaged 10.5 minutes. Betsy Frank, executive vice president, research and planning, counters that commercial-recall studies show that viewers tuning in "are watching the advertising, recalling the advertising and liking the advertising."
LOT is just one variable to consider in evaluating commercial environment, she says. "The ability to connect with viewers, to have viewers feel that the advertising is as relevant to them as the programming is as important as looking at length of tune."
At CBS, Executive Vice President, Research and Planning, David Poltrack still believes LOT is a one of the best ways to "separate the committed viewers from the channel surfers." He's hard-pressed to pick a cut-off number below which LOT is bad. Sometimes, he says, average LOT can be distorted by the non-core groups of surfers, and so a network could legitimately discount such viewers and make a case that the remaining audience is "attentive."