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Broadcasters not getting with the program

With only 56 percent of broadcast prime time viewing occurring live thanks to rapidly growing use of DVRs, programmers have begun trying to talk up the idea of extending the industry’s official ratings window from live + three days (so-called C3) to live + 7 days (C7), and charging advertisers accordingly. According to long-time CBS research chief David Poltrack viewing in the four-to-seven day window is up 17 percent this fall compared to last year, with some shows such as Fox’s Sleepy Hollow and NBC’s The Blacklist adding more than a million weekly viewers in that period.

“The difference between this season and two seasons ago is more dramatic than the difference between two seasons ago and 20 seasons ago,” Poltrack told the New York Times. Whether advertisers will bite on the idea remains to be seen. But the debate underscores just how anomalous the current system for buying and selling TV ads has become. 

Even under C7, the networks would still be selling ads as if scripted, scheduled TV shows (the majority of prime time content) were still essentially one-time, live events where the program itself serves as a proxy for a particular audience. From an advertiser’s perspective, you buy time in a live event to reach the audience likely to be attracted to that event and you accept a certain amount of inefficiency. In the case of scripted shows you may be able to infer a fair amount about the likely audience based on the show’s history, but it still comes down to buying the content as a proxy for the audience.

As the networks themselves acknowledge, however, watching scripted TV is increasingly an on-demand experience, not a live experience. And in most other on-demand contexts you buy the audience, not any particular piece of content or even a single outlet. There’s no need to audience proxies because audiences can be precisely identified and targeted programmatically. If the infrastructure existed to buy TV time that way programmatic buying would be a more logical approach than buying particular programs.