Walt Disney Co. is trying to get inside the minds of television viewers.
The Burbank-based entertainment company, with its profitable ESPN and ABC entertainment networks, said Tuesday that it was developing an "emerging media and advertising research lab" to try to figure out why people watch the shows they do.
ABC made the announcement as part of its "upfront" presentation to advertisers in New York to kick off the industry's springtime television sales season. ESPN entertained advertisers Tuesday morning, and ABC unveiled its fall schedule in the afternoon.
The new research center will be based in Austin, Texas, and will test a variety of advertising practices to discern how receptive consumers are to products that are integrated into shows, whether people pay attention to split screens and how they watch programs on mobile devices. Disney hopes to have the center running by November.
The effort is part of a companywide campaign to bring Disney's advertising sales strategy into the 21st century as behavioral research is more plentiful in the digital age. Now, television networks have second-by-second viewing data available, through Nielsen Media Research, TiVo and cable television operators.
Mike Shaw, ABC's advertising sales president, separately said that his team had developed a tool called the "advertising value index" to help corporate advertisers figure out which shows have the greatest appeal to their targeted consumers.
"We want to take a deeper dive into the audience itself," Shaw said at a news conference.
Disney is not the first firm to try to better analyze why people watch the shows they do. CBS built its own comprehensive TV-viewing research facility in Las Vegas in 2001.
More than 200 people a day, a cross section of visitors to the gambling mecca, go through CBS' TV City, giving feedback on TV commercials, promotions and websites.
"We have the latest eye-tracking research and neuro-focus systems that measure brain waves," said David Poltrack, CBS' chief research officer. "We have been doing all types of experimental research. The industry is moving away from just counting households to measuring how communication with viewers takes place."
Advertisers spend billions of dollars each year buying commercials based on limited information about the audience that is watching. Buying decisions, and networks' commercial rates, have largely been based on whether a show appeals to a large swath of consumers that, for example, falls within the 18- to 49-year-old age group or whether a show's audience skews male or female.
Beer and fast food companies advertise heavily during sports programming because it draws the testosterone crowd, and pharmaceutical companies typically buy spots in evening news programs because those shows' audiences skew older.
But relying on such broad categories does not help advertisers discern whether a show has more appeal among affluent viewers, technologically savvy viewers or people who are preparing to make a major car purchase.
Top advertising buyers acknowledged that the industry had been moving toward targeting specific audiences. But two of them noted that most agencies had been picking shows based on many of the factors that ABC was including in its index.
Early research has shown that people pay more attention to commercials if they are engaged or passionate about the program as opposed to the less-attentive "grazers." One of the more than 16 factors that will be measured in ABC's new index is the number of commercials that run in a commercial break or "pod." TV executives believe that viewers will sit through shorter commercial breaks rather than get up to snag a snack.
ABC figures that it is particularly well positioned for such a change in sales strategy and pricing because so many of its shows, including "Lost" and "Brothers and Sisters" have large contingents of dedicated viewers.
ABC is working to keep its advertising dollars rather than see the money moved to other platforms, such as the Internet. Network executives are concerned that the weak economy might prompt advertisers to pull back on spending.
Last year, the five broadcast networks, alone, sold $9.3 billion in advertising time in the weeks that followed the upfront presentations.
Disney plans to work with academic Duane Varan, who is known in the industry for a research project called "Beyond :30," which aims to understand viewing behavior.