Strange days indeed. Starcom this week cut an unusual deal with content syndicator Twentieth TV to guarantee ratings for the Starcom’s clients rather than rely on the standard practice of using average ratings for Mon-Fri. Twentieth TV syndicates several high-profile cable shows, including the off-net reruns of “Family Guy” and “Boston Legal,” as well as TBS’ original sitcom “House of Payne.” Starcom, which is touting the deal as a first in the industry, has been increasingly tough in negotiating its upfront buys. Earlier this year, the buyer announced that it wouldn’t even talk to networks that didn’t provide precision ratings metrics despite arguments from some researchers such as Turner’s Jack Wakshlag that the drive toward precision can make deals more complicated than necessary.
This time, Starcom’s apparent push for guaranteed ratings is likely to stir the pot even more, forcing content owners and packagers to produce even more precise numbers on a more frequent basis. Much of this precision obsession stems from years of media broadband Internet growth, culminating with moves in the last couple of years to “legitimize” online video with sponsored YouTube sections, standalone sites such as Hulu (NBCU/News Corp) and Joost, as well as content restricted to walled gardens within self-branded sites—the strategy favored by Viacom and Disney for their voluminous online content. The ability to track hits, downloads and streams online has helped influence ad buying in the TV universe, with Starcom only one of the more vocal supporters of an idea gaining ground with media buyers everywhere. Content providers are largely reciprocating, having no real choice in the matter.
But the issue raises some questions. Chief among them is how such precise metrics can account for broader advertising deals, which are becoming far more common and often include a mix of commercial spots, product placements, sponsored branding messages within programs and all the other sneaky methods designed to integrate messages into and around content. Trying to precisely measure the impact of a branded segment within an NFL football game—and how much value that brings to a deal that also includes 30-second spots within the same program—seems difficult if not impossible. In fact, it opens the door for all kinds of subjective jockeying and gamemanship between buyers and sellers. That could actually add more, not less, uncertainty to the measurement of ad campaigns. Ironic, isn’t it?