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Since the Covid-19 pandemic, streaming television has been perhaps the hottest realm of digital media; however, its sought-after perch became a little shakier this summer.

With a faltering economy, the upfronts buying cycle—where both connected and linear TV is sold—was slower than it’s been in years. In addition, large TV publishers such as Disney and Paramount laid off vast swaths of their employees, and the actors and writers who make the content went on strike.

This perfect storm might finally give buyers the leverage to get what’s been missing from their CTV buys—content-level transparency, or knowing what shows their ads are airing against. This information is table stakes in linear television, but transparency is still mostly unknown in connected television, where relatively scarce inventory has given publishers leverage to not share information with buyers.

But while there has been a bit of progress this upfront cycle and in 2023 more broadly, buyers are still getting incomplete information about what content their ads are airing against, according to conversations with nine buyers at agencies, brands and consultancies.

“It’s a crawl, walk, run, and we’re still very much crawling,” Matthew Kramer, head of brand investment at Media.Monks, said, adding, “ We’ve seen baby steps…. There has been a bit of softening on their side… [but] not enough to extinguish the concerns.”

Those concerns include inadvertently running ads against misinformation or airing ads for booze, casinos and testosterone supplements in children’s programming—all of which have happened since 2022. Content transparency could help mitigate the risk of such events by letting brands better audit their campaigns.

There has been progress. For instance, Strategus, which specializes in CTV ad buying, said that genre and rating are now passed back on 90% of impressions it processes. A year ago, that number was 10% to 15%, according to co-founder Joel Cox. Additionally, more granular content data like duration, series, episodes, or titles only appear in the high single-digits or low double-digit percentage of impressions. However, that’s an improvement from last year, where zero to a fraction of a percent of impressions contained this information.

It’s a crawl, walk, run, and we’re still very much crawling.

For open exchange connected TV inventory, show level data is only present for 4% to 10% of impressions, according to David Nyurenberg, OTT & digital video lead at Rain the Growth Agency.

Buyers get more show-level data

Though content data isn’t available in droves, it’s trickling out to some buyers.
Paramount has been a leader in providing post-campaign show-level data, multiple buyers said.

NBCUniversal is working toward providing more content-level granularity, and several equipment manufacturers like Samsung and Roku are making progress toward passing full genre-level data in the bidstream, according to Kelly Metz, managing director of advanced TV activation at Omnicom Media Group.

Paramount, NBCU, Samsung and Roku all declined or did not respond to comment by press time.

Metz said that conversations with publishers over more granular content have been trending in the right direction since the 2021 upfronts, adding, “’21 was a hard, ‘No, we’ll think about it,’ ’22 was a hard, ‘No, we’re working on it’ and ’23 is a, ‘Yeah, we’re finally going to do something about it.’”

John Donahue, partner at programmatic consultancy Up and to the Right, which advises large brands like Diageo on media buys, also said that media companies had been more receptive to sharing show-level data since late 2022. As additional evidence of this trend, he pointed to the wider adoption of the Iris ID, an ad-tech solution that lets publishers pass contextual data along a common taxonomy, letting buyers get insight into content data.

Iris.TV has signed up over 50 publisher and broadcaster clients since the beginning of the 2022 upfront season, spanning more than 600 apps and FAST channels, said its CEO, Field Garthwaite. He added that without solutions like Iris or a more unified industry framework, the content data that advertisers are getting can be of little value because each publisher defines content values differently. For instance, an Iris and Basis analysis of 100,000 CTV ad impressions found the term “comedy” had over 743 variations.

Buyer distrust

Not all buyers are optimistic that content data sharing will continue to improve.
“The ecosystem isn’t moving materially even if some people are finding pockets of better access,” said a brand media buyer, who wasn’t authorized to talk to the press.
As buyers wait for more robust content data from publishers, some are turning to ad-tech intermediaries for solutions.

For example, Rain the Growth Agency is working on evaluating CTV buys based on quality scores given by The Trade Desk and then using Chalice Custom Algorithms to optimize its bid strategy toward this quality media, Nyurenberg said.

A media executive at a CPG brand, who also wasn’t authorized to talk to the press, said the company prefers buying CTV programmatically because they can use verification firms like Integral Ad Science to gain assurance on their buys.

“Biddable programmatic buys have a bit more accountability to them at the moment than direct deals,” the executive said.

He added that these dynamics have eroded some of the pricing advantages of buying via the upfront. After all, a cheaper media buy is only worth so much if it doesn’t come with transparency.

A shifting of the tides?

Will buyers ever get full content transparency? Metz sees it as likely, explaining that, unlike in past years, streamers are now more mature and face more competition from each other and other platforms, especially during the writers strike.

“They are not YouTube. They are not TikTok. They are not UGC,” Metz said. “They actually should be leveraging the value of their content, and they can’t do that unless they’re transparent with what they’re running.”