Friday, February 29, 2008

Is there a digital primetime?

By Michael Estrin

Making sense of the web's fast-growing but fragmented video audience isn't easy. But the truth may be that reach is already here. It's just up to the marketers to find it.

At some point in my life 8 p.m. stopped being all that important. When I was a kid, primetime defined my media world, and I can pretty much chart what I know about pop culture from the shows I watched, all of which aired in that three-hour block called primetime.

Sad to say, but when the clock struck 8 p.m., a near Pavlovian response took hold as I raced to the TV to find the shows that defined my generation.

But fragmentation has eviscerated that shared media environment, and the on-demand culture of the web has made time irrelevant.

Is this a bad thing? No. Consumers seem to love it. Media companies, though stunned by how niche their audiences have become, seem to be adapting, and marketers are turning to technology companies to give them the reach they came to expect in the days of network TV.

And so it appeared that everyone in the media triangle (consumers, content producers and marketers) was coping -- with varying degrees of success -- in an increasingly fragmented world. True, a handful dinosaurs masquerading as media executives still insisted on a primetime audience, but that idea -- that users would actually band together for a shared experience subject to the dictates of a clock -- seemed laughable at best.

But then something weird happened -- at least, if you believe a piece in The New York Times.

It turns out that the web hasn't killed primetime after all. But like so many things on the internet, it's not what you think.

For starters, the web's primetime (if there is one, more on that in a bit), is a midday event. What some refer to as dayparting and others call video snacking is actually a trend of students, office workers, housewives and possibly the perpetually unemployed turning away from the TV and embracing new media in a big way.

It's noon; do you know who's looking at your ads?
Speaking mostly to publishers, The New York Times found that there is a growing push to get content up in time for a midday audience.

"Go take a walk around your office [at lunchtime]," Alan Wurtzel, head of research for NBC told the paper. "Out of 20 people, I'm going to guarantee that five are going to be on some sort of site that is not work-related."

According to The New York Times, portals like AOL and Yahoo have taken note of the trend, gearing their content toward a noon audience.

For Rob Barnett, CEO of MyDamnChannel, there's little doubt that there's such a thing as a midday video spike.

"We've been able to prove that noon -- no matter what geographic region you're looking at -- is the new primetime," Barnett says. "Wherever you look, there's a significant spike around noon."

In fact, one of Barnett's shows, "Horrible People," has a decidedly soap opera quality to it on the theory that midday audiences may have shifted platforms but kept their taste in content pretty much the same.

Not so fast
But not everyone agrees with Barnett's assessment, and numbers for video snacking seem hard to come by.

YouTube, the 800-pound gorilla of video sites, boldly declares that all times are primetime, saying it doesn't have publicly available data on when viewers are watching content. A YouTube spokesperson added that the site's audience is a global one and the concept of primetime is both dated and irrelevant.

According to comScore, one of the few firms able to give specific data on video consumption by time of day, there is a midday peak, with 37 million unique viewers looking at web video in the midday block. By comparison, comScore reports that the web's total video audience is about 19 million in the morning, with about the same number of viewers in the evening.

Cory Kronengold, director of marketing and communications for Tremor Media, a firm that specializes in placing ads in videos, confirms that there is a midday spike. But, he says, midday viewing is hard to quantify because of the geographic spread, and the spike occurs across all ad formats.

"I’d hardly call it the 'new primetime' because it's video snacking -- people watching news clips, the latest webisode or viral hit," Kronengold says. "They are blasting through more web pages and getting more ads, but not necessarily mimicking the primetime 'lean back' experience. Maybe its primetime for webisodes."

Pavlov's dog?
And then there's, the male-focused video portal-turned ad network. CEO Keith Richman says his site has actually seen a midday spike in the past, but what's happening now is actually a "flattening out of the day."

"We're seeing more people at all times," Richman says. "The peaks are much less than they used to be. From a marketer's standpoint, you want a specific person and you want to know the time that you're going to reach them. What I think [is happening with online video] is that marketers have a longer period of time over the day, rather than saying Thursday night primetime."

According to Richman, updates four times per day (10 a.m., 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 10 p.m.), but he says that's got more to do with users developing viewing habits than publishers and marketers creating an artificial primetime.

So, perhaps it's the viewers that want primetime back. Or, if not primetime, something akin to a "regular time" when they can incorporate online video into their everyday habits. While that's good news for the medium -- the idea that web video is routine as opposed to a novelty -- it's hardly a sea change away from the on-demand world and back to a more temporal consumption pattern.

But there's another school of thought that says it's not the users who want their primetime back. Instead, it's reach-challenged marketers who are longing for the days of a primetime audience.

Wishful thinking?
"Audiences are enjoying their favorite programs on their own schedule and it's not just during their lunch break," reports Greg Mand, VP of sales for PodShow, when asked if he's seeing dayparting among his audience.

While Mand says PodShow's users are eagerly embracing the on-demand universe, a handful of advertisers have requested time-specific slots. But according to Mand, that kind of thinking won't keep pace with the fast-evolving market.

"Though a ton of folks consume online content at the office, I think we'll see usage spread out more evenly across the day and night as the market develops," Mand explains.

If dayparting for video is really just wishful thinking on the part of marketers, then the problem may go beyond simple numbers.

Think of it this way: Marketers who formerly used TV to obtain reach in the past probably didn't sweat reach as much as their digital counterparts do today. If you wanted 10 million viewers in the 1980s, Nielsen could tell you which network show had that number with the demographics you were looking for. The data may not have been exact, but for marketers, it certainly was easy to come by.

But there's no such thing as a one-stop-shop for content today. What's out there is a universe of publishers and ad networks, regular viewers and irregular viewers. And if that's the case, the new primetime is really just a quest to find "M*A*S*H" or "Seinfeld" where it does not -- and likely never will -- exist.

So what does all this mean for marketers?
It's not fair to call the idea of a new digital primetime a myth. For one thing, there are some numbers (though better ones are required) that point to a midday traffic spike, at least at some sites.

Anecdotally, the NBC researcher who told The New York Times that office workers are consuming a lot of video at lunch, seems to be right on the money. Scanning my office and talking to friends and family, I've found that a lot of people are watching internet video in the middle of the day.

But it's hard to say that there's any single thing that people are watching. In fact, it's hard to say that there's any single thing people are watching at anytime of the day. And so it stands to reason that midday is just as fragmented as all other times.

So what's a marketer to do? One piece of advice may be as simple as get over it. Like the 30-second spot, the idea of primetime may also be a digital casualty.

According to Keith Richman, primetime might exist for a core audience, but the bulk of the viewers have become untethered. That assessment seems to jibe with Rob Barnett, the CEO of MyDamnChannel, who insists audiences are embracing a new primetime on the web. According to Barnett, MyDamnChannel uses its regular publishing schedule to build an audience that is loyal to both its site and specific shows. Where the two part ways, it seems, is the degree to which time-specific publication can develop and drive an audience.

But marketers may need to keep their eye on a somewhat different -- and more complex -- ball. Marketers will have to ask whether they're buying an audience, as defined by content alone, or if they're buying eyeballs, which means creating a hybrid of content, time and targeting to obtain reach.

Online video has taken flack for not being able to deliver reach. But the truth may be that reach is already here. It's just up to the marketers to find it now.

No comments: