Are We There Yet? Surveying the Progress of Audience Measurement

Ever since viewing of TV content across mobile devices and streaming services reached critical mass a couple of years ago, programmers, advertisers and other stakeholders have been reckoning with how to measure viewing. How much progress has been made? That can depends on who you ask, but everyone agrees this is the most consequential period for measurement perhaps since the dawn of cable, with tens of billions of dollars at stake. “We look at this as a pivotal year,” said Gian Fulgoni, founder and CEO of comScore, who will deliver an exclusive keynote presentation at Cablefax’s TV Innovation Summit on June 8 [Register at www.cfxtvsummit.com]. “We will have some major milestones accomplished for cross-platform measurement delivered at scale and in a timely manner.”

Both comScore and Nielsen, the major third-party measurement services, have rolled out a series of cross-platform initiatives in recent months. comScore also acquired Rentrak in 2016, in part because it helped expand its ability to measure across linear and digital. But as Fulgoni readily concedes, there have been high hurdles to widespread adoption of a revised universal currency. “You can’t measure the entities you’re trying to measure without their co-operation,” he says. “It is totally turning the world upside-down. It all comes back to the fragmentation of media.” It isn’t just the explosion of digital and linear programming sources creating confusion—VOD and connected devices also yield data that must be harvested in particular ways. The multitude of digital platforms and ways to get access to content keep proliferating. “What’s challenging about developing solutions is that it’s actually a whole bunch of solutions that you need,” says Colleen Fahey Rush, evp and chief research officer at Viacom Media Networks. “If I’m measuring ‘on the glass’ [linear TV], it’s one set of engineering solutions. If I’m on Hulu, it’s another. If I’m on VOD, it’s yet another.” Major programmers like Viacom and Turner, which have seen ratings erosion according to traditional metrics, have long agitated for more comprehensive tools. Both are among those who have opted to create proprietary measurement tools in order to help advertisers understand how their content is viewed across platforms. While Rush emphasized Viacom’s respect for third-party measurement companies’ efforts to hit a fast-moving target, others have been more publicly fractious.

NBCUniversal sales chief Linda Yaccarino sent Nielsen a letter last December complaining that its Total Audience Measurement tool was not ready for prime time. “Some say ‘Something is better than nothing.’ We disagree. Bad, inaccurate and misleading data is far worse than no data at all.” Despite all of the industrywide angst, Rush adds, progress is happening, even if “it’s happening in a lumpy way.” Sean Muller, CEO of ad tracking firm iSpot, says one fundamental distinction has to be drawn when assessing cross-platform measurement: whether the objective is measuring content or measuring ads. In terms of telling advertisers how their ads are traveling across linear TV, OTT services and VOD, “we’re very bullish on that,” Muller says. But the picture gets cloudier when digital viewing is factored in. “ Facebook and Google have created walled gardens,” making their numbers and methodologies opaque so as to increase their leverage with advertisers. “You can still sort of duct-tape different metrics together to give clients a sense of it. But those are difficult areas.” Rush says upstarts like Symphony (which uses audio signals to analyze programming) are offering some interesting new approaches. “It’s a very creative time,” she says. “I just think that’s going to accelerate… This is not just an upfront process just parked in the spring. It’s year-round.” – Dade Hayes

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