Need Better Voter Data? TV Habits May Tell All

Posted April 27, 2004 at 6:57pm

The voters are watching — but exactly what they are watching has remained something of a mystery. Until now.

A group of former TV executives and Nielsen Media Research teamed up this week with a pair of veteran political strategists to roll out a new political tool that cross-references detailed demographic data about voters with their television-viewing habits.

The sponsors say their product will enable campaigns to reach specific voter audiences with stunning precision — all for a fee, of course.

The upshot for candidates is that they will no longer have to guess whether to buy ad time during “CSI” or “The Bachelor” to reach, say, soccer moms or NASCAR dads. Instead, they’ll be able to hit their targeted slices of the electorate head-on.

“This drastically eliminates the carpet-bombing effect,” said former National Republican Congressional Committee Executive Director Scott Hatch, who is working with longtime Democratic operative Tom Sheridan to market the services of the Los Angeles-based company Media Vote inside the Beltway.

The longstanding problem for campaigns, Hatch said, is the challenge of deciding how to reach specific audiences within the vast television-watching universe. If a campaign wanted to reach soccer moms, the best they could do would be to guess that they might be watching Oprah or afternoon soap operas.

If Media Vote works as billed, campaign strategists will know for sure who’s watching what, and when.

Media Vote founder Lonnie Burstein — a 20-year TV veteran who was formerly senior vice president of TV research and strategy at Universal Television Enterprises — said the new venture is focused on “giving politics an understanding of television and television audiences” by providing targeted demographics that go beyond simply age and sex.

Through its partnership with Nielsen Media Research, Media Vote offers to build a “psychographic profile” of television viewers within specific media markets. Nielsen provides campaigns with key information it has collected about its viewers’ political affiliations, their voter frequency and even their positions on specific issues.

Suppose, for instance, that a campaign wants to reach out to young women who are Democrats and who care deeply about increasing spending on education.

According to Media Vote, the hit series “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” might deliver high ratings for CBS but won’t offer much bang for the buck for this hypothetical Democratic candidate.

Traditionally, available demographic data would show that CSI reaches 267,000 women between 25 and 54 within a particular media market. At a cost of $15,322 per spot, the campaign would be paying $940 per “rating point” — a standard unit of measurement for television audiences.

However, an analysis by Media Vote revealed that CSI’s audience in the market studied is actually comprised of only 106,800 of targeted electorate — or just 40 percent of the amount presumed under the methods previously available.

That means the campaign’s out-of-pocket cost per rating point would actually exceed $2,300, thereby wasting a significant amount of campaign cash, MVP says.

Media Vote’s analysis suggests that this hypothetical candidate would be better off buying a slot each in the NBC series “The West Wing” and in ABC’s sitcom “8 Simple Rules.” That would enable the candidate to reach 170,080 viewers— or 59 percent more — in its intended target group, all for minimally more money.

Likewise, with a 9 percent increase in total dollar spending, the campaign could purchase two spots during NBC’s “Law & Order” and one spot during “Survivor.” That buy would have captured 68 percent more viewers in the intended target group.

The company offers analyses by specific TV program, with time period comparisons and by program rankings.

“We’re a smart bomb, basically,” said Media Vote’s Bonnie Buckner.

The company’s findings have already turned conventional wisdom about political TV advertising on its head.

For instance, Media Vote data shows — counterintuitively — that the WB’s seemingly pious drama “7th Heaven” has an audience that is 45 percent Democratic, 29 percent Independent and only 13 percent Republican.

By contrast, Fox’s “The Simpsons,” long considered a staple of the hip and urban, is actually a Republican stronghold, with 47 percent of viewers Republican, 20 percent Democratic and 22 percent Independent.

“When the results came out, it was really unbelievable,” Burstein said.

Another analysis showed that the viewership of the three major networks skewed quite differently.

Seventy-nine percent of “ABC World News” viewers were Democratic, compared with 17 percent who identified themselves as Republican and only one percent who described themselves as “Independent.”

“CBS Evening News,” on the other hand, attracted 12 percent Independent viewers, while 58 percent were identified as Democrats and 20 percent said they were Republican. “NBC Nightly News” viewers, meanwhile, were 48 percent Democrats and 33 percent Republican.

With a heavy percentage of traditional media buys placed during news shows — sometimes as much as 50 percent of a campaign’s media budget — knowing each network’s viewership patterns could be important.

However, some campaign consultants seemed skeptical that the new technology would muscle out traditional advertising methods and strategies.

One GOP media consultant said he thought the new service “could help around the margins,” but cautioned that campaigns will likely stick to the tried and true method of “reaching as many people as you can in the shortest amount of time.”

“Maybe it enhances your buy. … But I don’t agree that it takes away the carpet bombing,” the hired gun explained. “We have to carpet bomb because we have to use the power of TV to reach so many of the people in a very short time.”

As Media Vote tries to sell its wares inside the campaign industry, it has little direct competition.

Campaign media buyers say that Scarborough Research, a company that specializes in data about consumer behaviors, occasionally offers broad political data in its mix. But Media Vote officials say their products will allow campaigns to delve far more deeply into the political consciousness of television viewers.

Nielsen Media research is the sole proprietor of television viewing data in the US market, supplying TV viewing data to more than 1000 local TV stations, nine broadcast markets and close to 100 basic and pay cable networks. Media Vote, for its part, is the exclusive provider of this information to the marketplace.

Media Vote’s handlers are mum on the cost of the service, saying prices depend on the size, scope and customization required by a particular client.

As Media Vote’s promoter in GOP circles, Hatch is convinced that the new product will create a “paradigm shift” that revolutionizes media buying in campaigns, the way that Google revolutionized the Internet.

“It will put the turbo back into the engine of TV,” Hatch said.