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Why a Google-TiVo Partnership Changes the TV Ad Game

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More accurate data shows who's actually watching the commercials.

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For more than half a century, Nielsen Ratings were the cornerstone to measuring advertising fees. The more popular a television program was, the more advertisers were charged for a commercial spot. It's long been acknowledged as a flawed but necessary system. Viewers will fast forward through ads, use the bathroom during commercials, or simply change the channel to another program. Advertisers had to rely on faith that folks were, in fact, watching a dog chase a chuck wagon into a kitchen cabinet with the intent on purchasing dog food.

But now, to the detriment of cash-strapped networks and producers, Google (GOOG) is teaming up with TiVo (TIVO) to deliver second-by-second numbers to determine who's actually watching an ad and who's skipping past it. The kicker: Google will assure advertisers need only pay for the commercials that were seen, leaving a giant hole for networks comprised of viewers with weak bladders. (We're looking at you, HGTV.)

Google TV Ad project with TiVo only applies to time-shifted programs -- or content that was recorded via TiVO DVRs -- rather than live television. The numbers are tallied from TiVo's anonymous user data from each customer across the country, but usage information from specific households remains private.

This isn't the first foray into the television realm for Google. In 2007, the company partnered with EchoStar (SATS) and the Dish Network (DISH), giving advertisers an auction interface to bid on commercial slots. E*Trade (ETFC) and 1-800-Flowers.com (FLWS) were two of the sponsors allured by the more accurate ratings data.

Two key members of the Google-TiVo deal -- vice president of TiVo's audience research business Todd Juenger and Google's director of emerging platforms Mike Steib -- spoke with the Los Angeles Times and emphasized that networks won't be threatened by this service.

"Our system makes it easy for people to buy TV ads," Steib said, citing that 30% of Google TV advertisers had never purchased televised ad time before joining its service. "We're lowering the barriers to entry, which has the effect of growing the market."

Juenger also related to the Times, "More and more marketing dollars are being directed to Internet and search largely because of the accountability those mediums offer. If you are confident that you're getting what you're paying for, you're more inclined to pay. To the extent that we can do that for TV, that ought to stimulate demand."

Yes, demand shouldn't be a problem. Any advertiser with a competent marketing team ought to jump at the chance to possibly pay less for the same amount of ad time. But it remains to be seen whether an increased number of frugal advertisers will prove to be more profitable by not paying a flat rate.

The service will likely generate interest among other DVR and streaming-video companies.

Set-top box maker Roku -- which offers content from Netflix (NFLX) and Amazon Video On Demand (AMZN) -- recently expanded its offerings to more online content and could potentially form a similar partnership. While advertisers already have a better sense of an audience via clickthroughs and impressions, Google's experience with recording user data could be too good of a deal to pass up.

Despite Steib and Juenger's assurance, TV executives should be concerned.

As for now, Google TV Ads are working in conjunction with NBC (GE) cable networks like CNBC, MSNBC, and SyFy Channel as well as Hallmark Channel (CRWN), CBS College Sports (CBS), and GSN -- which is jointly-owned by Liberty Media (LCAPA) and Sony Pictures (SNE).

TiVo will make an official announcement of the partnership today after the closing bell along with its third-quarter earnings report. Analysts expect a loss of $0.06 per share on revenue of $49.68 million.
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