Tuning Into the Online Buzz

Networks are paying to hear what Websurfers are saying about their shows

NBC has come around to the idea of tracking buzz. Once skeptical about the value of measuring the level of Internet chatter surrounding TV programs, the network is now in “serious conversations” to close a deal with Nielsen BuzzMetrics to find out what people are saying about shows like its new drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. And NBC is not alone. As TV audiences spend more time online, networks are increasingly turning to buzz-tracking data—and paying as much as $1 million—for a more detailed picture of their fragmented audiences than ratings alone can provide. As a result, buzz-tracking companies are rising to meet the demand, with augmented services and new products.

“We’re in this environment now where everybody’s just so hungry for as much information as we can get with respect to how folks are using different platforms and media,” says NBC Universal President of Research and Media Development Alan Wurtzel, who was initially wary that data might be skewed by mass efforts to sway opinion. “I remain skeptical, but I’m also open. We’re anxious to experiment with every legitimate way to understand the contemporary media environment.”

ABC and CBS are both working with BuzzMetrics and Toronto-based Brandimensions. Fox is now the charter partner in a new service from consumer-research firm OTX. (ABC executives were unavailable for comment; CBS and Fox executives declined to comment.)

OTX’s service, which launched in mid 2005, costs in the “low to mid four figures” per week for access to daily surveys, says Aaron Paquette, VP of media and entertainment insights.

The company polls some 2,100 people live and online weekly, probing their awareness of shows: Have they heard of them? Are they hearing good things? Clients can also pay up to $2,000 more a week to add questions on topics like scheduling or interest in a show’s Website.

“It helps you predict what shows are going to get the most sampling and, at least near term, which premieres you want to get in on,” says Kris Magel, senior VP and account manager at Zenith Media, who looked at several services last fall and found some to be accurate forecasters of shows’ success.

Brandimensions, which reports “triple-digit growth” in revenue since last year, now offers data to media buyers and advertisers, including a major automaker.

The company mines some 2.3 million Websites for TV buzz and then filters the content through human researchers, who scan for attributes, like sarcasm, that a computer can’t detect. The company charges from $100,000 for three TV reports a year to $1 million for custom research and detailed diagnostic analyses each month.

BuzzMetrics has expanded the frequency of its updates since being acquired by Nielsen Media Research last year. In August, the company began offering three- to five-page weekly reports tracking comments about shows made on “consumer-generated media,” such as blogs, message boards, chatrooms and social-networking sites.

Fifteen networks have signed up for the “TV BuzzMetrics Buzz Briefs,” which cost in the “thousands per week,” says Dan Mecham, VP/general manager of entertainment, adding that he no longer has to convince TV executives that Internet chatter is worth following.

“A few years ago, we had to sell the religion as well as the product,” he says. “That’s increasingly less the case.”

Not everyone is sold on the idea. For cable networks, with smaller budgets and fewer shows to launch than broadcast networks, the services can prove too costly. Colleen Fahey Rush, MTV Networks’ executive VP of research, says buzz-tracking “just hasn’t felt like a real strong fit for how we run our business.

“We’re very busily devoting dollars and resources and time against uncovering consumer insights about all kind of other platforms, devices and content experiences,” she continues. “I can get a sense of what people are talking about by monitoring the [message] boards myself.”

The chatter, however, isn’t always on the money. While the negative response to Fox’s Happy Hour has been borne out in its ratings, Studio 60, the show Brandimensions concluded was “poised to become the breakout hit of the new fall season,” has not lived up to the buzz.