With a financial boost from political ads, the number of local TV news operations that are researching viewer preferences this year is the highest it has been since the economy tanked in 2008, industry watchers say.
“Stations are doing more research than normal because they are much more concerned — and media use is much more complex — then it’s ever been,” says Jerry Gumbert, president-CEO of AR&D.
“When competition rises, people are going to spend more money on research because there is more at stake,” he says.
At the same time, stations are bolstering, or even replacing, traditional research methods, like focus groups and telephone questionnaires, with online surveys that news executives say reap better feedback from a larger pool of participants. In addition, the Internet is allowing local broadcasters to test more ideas and content, as they are able to garner reaction to everything from the personalities and promotions to excerpts and content clips they put online.
About 60% of today’s audience research is conducted online, Gumbert says. Small-market stations that can’t assemble a large enough online panel default to telephone.
A decade ago, TV news departments did 10 times as many focus groups as they do today, he says.
Whether it’s due to more flexible time, or the relative anonymity of being online, responses to Internet surveys tend to be of greater depth and more passionate then the ones garnered by other means, particularly via telephone, station and research executives say.
“You end up getting more thoughtful, more substantive and more thorough responses,” says Don North, news director of WFLA, Media General’s NBC affiliate in Tampa-St. Petersburg-Sarasota (DMA 14). WFLA, which tests “everything from content to the folks delivering the news” every two years, now uses primarily online methodology; about two years ago, the station started testing audience reaction to digital as well as TV content.
In addition, an Internet survey that taps, say, 500 consumers, could reach enormously more consumers than would a series of focus groups (which would include closer to 50 participants and be more expensive), providing quantitative data other methods don’t.
Consumer research is evolving in other ways as well.
Frank N. Magid Associates, for example, has created a subscription-based Content Performance Index, which automatically monitors news stories to determine which resonate most with viewers, says Steve Ridge, president of Magid’s Media Strategy Group. The system assesses stories nationally and locally; it also evaluates the popularity of categories — such as health, entertainment and politics — with viewers.
Magid also now tests the performance of advertising as well as TV news products themselves, Ridge says.
None of which are without their pitfalls.
AR&D, for example, partnered with the online research company Research Now so that participants in online panels are carefully vetted first, Gumbert says. Telephone surveys tend to yield very short answers, frequently limited by respondents’ interest and time constraints. Focus groups may be good for eliciting “general” feedback on ideas but do not produce quantitative data.
And at a time when 25% of Americans don’t have landlines — yet there are still TV news viewers who won’t respond to questions online — each research apparatus is limited to those who will use it.
“It is important to first determine the full spectrum of people you wish to include in a sample, and then determine which methodology best suits the nature of the inquiry. If you begin by selecting a methodology, you run the risk of excluding certain people,” says Ridge.
In turn, researchers say they prefer using a mix of research methods that lets them reach particular viewers on devices of their choice, building a larger sampling in the process.
In many cases, though, it still boils down to a question of money.
A TV news department in a mid-size market can expect to pay $20,000 to $50,000 for research.
That could explain why, according to Gumbert, the percentage of TV stations that actually do research, as well as the relative amount of money they spend on it, “is miniscule” in comparison to other industries. Even stations that regularly conduct research (which typically means every other year) are not spending more money on the projects then they did 10 yeas ago, he says.
Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, says the cost of doing research is “a tough nut to crack” for many stations, particularly those in small and mid-size markets.
“There is no question that the entire financial situation of the last few years has weighed heavily on all aspects of TV stations, and research still is not for a lot of stations,” Cavender says.
In addition, TV news leaders may have some trepidation investing big bucks in research when they are still trying to figure out how — or whether — the projects can truly address the multitude of issues they face as media continually changes, he says.
Factors from market stability to company philosophy also sway whether TV stations do research or not.
Proponents say it’s worth the cost.
“We want to know how people are reacting to what we’re doing,” says WFLA’s North. “It is an important part of what we do and it could help guide us in future decisions.”
With all the challenges facing TV news, now could be a particularly important time to get on board.
As Gumbert says: “From a researcher’s perspective, if there was ever a time you would think broadcasters would pony up and invest in research it would be now.”
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