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Cable Technology Feature Article

November 14, 2013

Holiday TV Gives Advertisers the Gift of Mass Viewership

By Tara Seals, TMCnet Contributor

Television, as many of us remember, used to be a pretty limited experience. Mostly, people watched the three big networks that were received over the air through an antenna on the roof—and even after the arrival of mainstream cable, they continued to dominate viewership. Then there was PBS (widely known as the “educational channel”)—and then those weird local UHF channels that you had to use the special, secondary TV dial to find. The end result was the phenomenon of mass viewership—when Dallas or Three’s Company were popular, they were REALLY popular, and everyone watched it on the same night at the same time, all across America. TV shows became cultural touch-points.

For advertisers, that phenomenon translated into a veritable bonanza of eyeballs, a.k.a. sales opps. Consider that the 1983 finale of M*A*S*H to this day held the record for the most-watched televised event in American history until the 2010 Super Bowl, when 106.5 million people watched the New Orleans Saints defeat the Indianapolis Colts in Miami. The M*A*S*H finale is still the most-watched non-sports broadcast of all time, with 105.97 million viewers. To put that staggering feat in perspective, that was at a time when there were 83.3 million TV homes according to Nielsen. There are currently about 115 million TV homes.

Nowadays, as grandpa would say, the rise of video-on-demand, catch-up TV, mobile and online viewing and place-shifting means that consumers are no longer gathered as a family around the ol’ living room set to chuckle at Hawkeye’s witticisms anymore. Different family members are watching different shows at different times on different devices in different rooms, across hundreds—yes, hundreds—of networks. And that has made advertisers’ efforts infinitely more complex than they once were. Even as spot prices go up, audience sizes have dwindled. Sure, new measurement techniques aimed at developing a better view of consumers across devices are being pioneered, but in the meantime it’s still a scattershot effort outside of sports events barring the emergence of a breakout hit like the Blacklist (10.73 million viewers this week, according to Nielsen), or the Voice (11.91 million viewers).

But tis the season for gifts, and brands are getting theirs: Christmas specials offer a welcome refuge from all of that viewership fragmentation. Holiday programming, according to AdAge, is snagging big dollars for networks this season, be it original broadcasts or a well-hyped re-run of Charlie Brown-style favorites.  

Take, for instance, the Hallmark Channel, whose 1,300 hours of “Countdown to Christmas” programming accounts for 30 percent of annual ad revenue. This year, its marketer base has expanded from being predominantly retailers to include more ads from categories like automakers, financial services, communications carriers and fast food. Hallmark is also for the first time offering a Christmas Day event, with a marathon of 12 original holiday movies to be shown commercial free. Macy’s is sponsoring the whole shebang.

"The fourth quarter is the highest-rated, highest-revenue generator and where we invest the majority of our resources," said Ed Georger, executive vice president of advertising sales at Hallmark parent Crown Media, speaking to AdAge.

The network is delivering for advertisers, with its original movies claiming more viewers than any other cable net. 

A movie dubbed "The Thanksgiving House" on Nov. 2 was the highest-rated and most-watched program on the channel as of its air date, delivering an audience of 4.7 million people. That was quickly eclipsed last weekend by “A Very Merry Mix Up” and “Snow Bride,” which came in as the No. 1 and No. 2 movies of the week respectively on all of cable, and added up to Hallmark Channel’s top-rated weekend in network history.

“Very Merry” delivered a 3.9 household rating, becoming the network’s most watched telecast ever and the No. 2 most-watched program of any stripe for Sunday across all cable nets. The latter meanwhile was the top-rated event for Saturday across all cable nets and scored a 3.0 household rating, attracting nearly 5 million unduplicated total viewers.

“Over the past four years, Hallmark Chanel’s new original ‘Countdown to Christmas’ movies have consistently broken ratings records and made the network No. 1 in cable for weekend primetime throughout the holiday season,” said Bill Abbott, president and CEO at Crown Media. “These early results are a clear indication that ‘Countdown to Christmas’ is an integral and beloved holiday tradition for so many, making Hallmark Channel the top television destination for seasonal programming.”

Families, the reasoning goes, come together on the holidays, including in front of the TV. And while Hallmark Channel is the poster-child network for this, other networks are seeing a bump too.

We "get budgets we maybe wouldn't get other times of the year," said Laura Nathanson, executive vice president of national sales at ABC Family, in AdAge. "With holiday programming, you bring the whole family together, which is rare these days, and advertisers are intrigued by that."

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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