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Why are advertisers buying time on a network no one's watching?

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Al Jazeera America is the cable television equivalent of the tree that falls in the forest with no one around to hear it. Though the tree may or may not have made a noise, depending on your semantics, AJA is starting to make some advertising money – though with too few viewers for Nielsen to even measure, it's a mystery why.

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Even fewer viewers

When AJA debuted last August, its viewership was nothing to write home to headquarters in Qatar about. As TVNewswer reported at the time,

The 2 PM Saturday edition of “News Live” averaged 48,000 viewers, while “Inside Story” Thursday at 12:30 PM averaged 41,000 viewers. “News Live” Thursday from 12-12:30 averaged 40,000. The debut edition of “The Stream” on Tuesday averaged 38,000 viewers, below Nielsen’s accuracy threshold, while the debut of “America Tonight” averaged 34,000 viewers.

The launch hour, which was Tuesday afternoon at 3 PM, and featured a preview of what was to come on the channel, averaged 22,000 viewers, below Nielsen’s minimum accuracy threshold. In other words, Nielsen says it cannot accurately count how many people watched it, and the number it gives is essentially a rough guess. This is also called “scratching.”

We do not have the adults 25-54 numbers, but given the total viewer numbers, one can surmise that they scratched.

Six months later, those August numbers look like the Good Old Days.

Even though it's been added to the Time Warner system, "Al Jazeera America has averaged just 15,000 total viewers in prime-time since bowing in August," says Advertising Age, "with only 5,000 viewers in the target 25-to-54-year-old demographic, according to Nielsen figures. That's low enough to be considered 'scratch,' or negligible, by Nielsen."

Just how few are 15,000 total viewers? Here are some comparisons to put the number in perspective:

  • Some 100 people less than passed through Kiev's Boryspil Airport on one day (June 14, 2012, admittedly its busiest date so far).
  • 585 fewer people than live in one square mile of the Village of Fairview, NJ.
  • One-third the number of people watching a sellout soccer game at Stade El Menzah arena in Tunis.
  • The average number of people who buy Big Macs every 19.2 minutes.
  • The average number of people who board New York City subway trains every 4.78 minutes.
  • 5 percent of the number of extras in the movie "Gandhi."
  • 0.01 percent of the number of potential viewers it reaches. (Being picked up by Time Warner increased AJA's penetration to 55 million households, and US households average 2.55 people. Doing the multiplication gives a total of 140,250,000 potential viewers, 140,235,000 of whom are watching something else.)
  • Less than half the number of viewers that its predecessor, massively failing Current TV, drew without the Time Warner penetration.

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But while AJA has lost viewers from its meager initial base, it's been picking up advertisers.

In addition to direct-response advertisers including SelectQuote Senior, The Tax Doctor, Dollar Shave Club, Hip Hop Abs, GetDerm.com and bottom-feeding class-action lawyers, there are actually some national brands – Gillette, Expedia, and "commercials from movie studios, various dot com companies and travel and hotel marketers, according to media buyers and a network spokeswoman." (Whether the spokeswoman was wearing a burka, Ad Age didn't say.)

Buying the system, not the channel?

This doesn't necessarily mean that hard-headed media buyers have momentarily taken leave of their senses. It may result from three ways that advertisers buy air time:

  • Buying the system – With literally hundreds of channels per cable system, it can become impossible to micromanage each one. National advertisers can buy time on entire cable systems nationally or regionally, and when they do, some of it spills over into the smaller, less watched, channels.
  • Minimizing cost per lead – Many direct-response advertisers base their television buys primarily or exclusively on cost per lead – the quotient you get when you divide the cost of the air time by the number of responses. The cheaper the air time, the better that quotient looks. (Humana, for example, used to buy air time for its Medicare HMOs in children's morning and afternoon programming; even though the audience was very junior rather than senior, the low air time cost made up for the, shall we say, diverse targeting.) And with a prime-time total of just 15,000 viewers, AJA's air time has to be dirt cheap.
  • Remnant time – Another way cable television time is sold is through remnant buys – commercial time in unsold ad pods. You can't schedule when your spots will run, but you can pick the channels, and you're guaranteed a specific number of spots per day and per week. In many markets, you can buy remnant time for $5-10 per :30. With AJA's low viewership and abundance of remnant time, the unit cost may more likely be measured not in dollars, but in cents.

All that notwithstanding, "None of my clients are jumping on board just yet," Steve Kalb, the Mullen advertising agency's SVP and director-national broadcast, told Ad Age. "There's a little more interest than when the network launched … but viewership is still so small."

He's got lots of company, as Ad Age notes: "[P]lenty of advertisers are still staying away from Al Jazeera America."

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