President of Viacom Kids and Family Group Cyma Zarghami speaks onstage at the Annual 2015 CMT Upfront at The Times Center on April 2, 2015 in New York City.
President of Viacom Kids and Family Group Cyma Zarghami speaks onstage at the Annual 2015 CMT Upfront at The Times Center on April 2, 2015 in New York City. - 
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Marketplace

In the coming weeks, a dance between the companies that make the television shows we all love, and the people who pay for it all: the advertisers.

Upfronts, as they're called, happen each year in New York, and the name says it all. Networks pitch their programming to ad buyers, hoping to score a big budget up front. The typical measure that they're selling is a Nielsen rating, the total number of viewers broken down by age and gender. That's why we hear so much about categories like men aged 18-34 for programs like "The Daily Show."

But in an ad world infused by the many clicks and Tweets of social media, that may not be enough. Upfront sales have been flat, declining slightly in recent years. 

Variety reports that Time Warner and Viacom have a new strategy. Both are in talks to guarantee specific outcomes from an ad campaign, not just the average number of eyeballs it will get.

"They are saying, 'Look, tell us what you need. Do you need more foot traffic in your restaurant? Do you need more people to sign up for your loyalty program? Do you need X number of retweets on Twitter? Tell us what you want and let's try to work it out together,'" said Brian Steinberg, senior TV editor for Variety. 

That's a big shift from delivering a sizeable audience, and it relies on using more of the advertisers' own data, beyond what Nielsen can offer. Companies can compare email lists or loyalty swipes with geographic information pulled from set-top boxes to see who's really responding to the ads, and where. 

It's a methodology directly affected by the popularity of tablets and online video -- and the smaller, more targeted audiences that advertisers are reaching there. Likewise, Time Warner is looking to test this strategy for smaller, more targeted broadcast channels like Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, whose younger audiences are fairly well-defined. 

In the words of one marketing executive who talked to Steinberg, this is "the Holy Grail of advertising."

"For years, [advertisers] have long decried TV," he said. Despite big audience figures, there's little nuance. "You may blast a car ad on 'American Idol,' but how many of those people are in the market for a new car?"

Nielsen is a little nervous about this, Steinberg added. While it's still the dominant way ads are sold, the ratings don't capture the places people watch TV outside of the living room. 

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Follow Kai Ryssdal at @kairyssdal