This article was originally published by Business Insider.
Tracking TV viewing is complicated in an era of multiple screens and on-demand streams. And the stakes are high, given that there’s a $70 billion ad market on the line.
Nielsen, the decades-old incumbent in the TV-research game, says it’s equipped for an “over the top”-viewing, or OTT, world. Meanwhile, its rival comScore intends to leapfrog Nielsen in its ability to gauge who watches which show, and when and where.
The rest of the industry isn’t totally convinced.
Even as several TV executives champion competition between comScore and Nielsen, hoping that both firms raise their games, there are serious doubts about both researchers’ ability to serve the industry’s needs going forward.
As more people watch TV shows on digital screens, on their own schedules and with varying ad loads, tracking just how many people see those shows only gets harder.
And as comScore vows improvement and Nielsen defends its turf, some experts are questioning whether these companies are fighting yesterday’s wars, trying to count the totality of TV audiences when advertisers are using data to run ads for specific audiences. That’s the kind of thing they do every day on Facebook and Google, and they increasingly want to do it on TV.
“The industry has this weird hangover,” said Jonathan Steuer, the chief research officer for the ad-buying agency Omnicom Media Group. “The transition to streaming happened faster than people expected, so we still don’t have good cross-platform measurement.
“But ratings alone are answers to the wrong test, since streaming ads and content don’t need to be tied together as they are in linear TV.”
Tal Chalozin, the CTO and cofounder of the video-ad-tech firm Innovid, said that the new wave of direct-to-consumer brands, accustomed to selling to consumers on Facebook and Instagram using all sorts of powerful datasets, would be left wanting by either comScore or Nielsen and their panel-based metrics approaches.
“Neither are giving the market what they want,” he said, adding that these brands “are not going to be happy.”
Right now, TV companies still love ratings. And they think they’re being shortchanged.
For several years now, as ratings for live, linear TV have tanked, many in the TV industry have grumbled loudly. People are still watching our shows — just differently, they say. And Nielsen is doing a lousy job of adding up how many people watch X show live, via a DVR, on demand, on Hulu, on a network’s TV app, on their phones, etc.
It’s created an overall sense of frustration.
“I believe we are undervalued still,” said Radha Subramanyam, the chief of research and analytics at CBS.
Subramanyam highlighted two metrics crucial to tracking TV viewership but lacking in the current market:
- De-duplication: Even though OTT viewing provides lots of data, it doesn’t tell TV networks who viewers are or whether they’re the same people watching on other screens. So you can end up counting the same people more than once.
- Co-viewing: OTT doesn’t tell you how many people are watching at a given time. So you can end up counting a family of four watching TV together as a single streamer or viewer.
“Those are the missing pieces,” Subramanyam said. Nielsen doesn’t have an answer, she added.
“I don’t believe there is a live product today that can get at those numbers,” she said. “Not to my knowledge.”
This is where comScore, a company battered over the past several years amid accounting scandals and leadership turmoil, sees a big opening.
The firm has been telling advertisers behind the scenes that it has solutions for de-duplication and co-viewing, metrics that some feel Nielsen is behind on. And comScore recently announced such a product.
“An industry challenge we are all facing now is that currently there is no accurate measurement platform to account for de-duplicated reach and co-viewing, which is why we are excited to see what comScore has to offer with this new beta study,” said Julie DeTraglia, the head of research at Hulu.
Nielsen says it has for years offered viable products for both metrics.
“We’ve gained a lot of ground in capturing viewership in OTT and connected TV in the past couple of years, working with clients in this space including Hulu, Roku and others to provide currency measurement across their platforms,” Kelly Abcarian, the senior vice president of product leadership at Nielsen, said in a statement. “It’s not a surprise to see that that’s where others are headed now as well.
“The key to audience measurement of OTT viewing is being able to actually measure people — and simply put, Nielsen is the only provider in the market that does this.”
It’s all very confusing.
A few months ago, Business Insider went deep on the state of TV measurement. ComScore didn’t get good reviews.
The company’s recently installed CEO, Bryan Wiener, doesn’t dispute that assessment. He knows that comScore needed to get its act together.
A blunt digital-ad veteran, Wiener recently unveiled the new product, promising a way to count how many people see an advertiser’s ad campaign across different platforms, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Wiener says comScore has an aggressive product roadmap for the next few months, with plans to offer products for ad buyers and ad sellers that pull together data from cable set-top boxes, digital panels, mobile devices, and other sources.
“Our number one priority across the entire business is to continue to establish comScore as currency and the new standard for cross-platform measurement, with a focus on premium video,” Wiener wrote in a memo.
He told Business Insider, “We have a lot to prove, and we intend to prove it.” He added that the push toward more targeted TV advertising played to comScore’s strengths, since it has access to a deep well of cable set-top data.
To help his cause, Wiener recently tapped the highly respected executive Sarah Hofstetter to be comScore’s new president. Wiener and Hofstetter both had stints as CEO and chairman of the ad agency 360i at different periods.
Hofstetter starts at comScore next month. She knows she’s facing a major challenge, but she also sees a huge opening.
“As a buyer for many years, I know what a problem it is,” she said. “People keep talking about it, how the industry needs better measurement. But how many people are trying to make a difference?”
Hofstetter sees an advantage in that she and Wiener come to comScore with fresh eyes and no loyalty to any particular product.
That should be music to the ears of media buyers, some of whom believe that TV measurement is stuck in the live-linear-viewing era.
“Ratings are really just a brochure for sellers,” Steuer said. “What people who buy media really care about is measuring impressions against individuals and households.”
For that to work, Steuer said, you need data from devices, servers, and panels, so advertisers can calibrate matching people to devices.
“And we still don’t have that,” Steuer said.
Hofstetter said she got the perspective that TV ratings are less important in an on-demand world, as well as the desire for new datasets.
“My issue as a buyer was always getting greater line of sight in the totality of my media plan,” she said. “That’s a continual challenge, not yesterday’s war.”
One thing that’s already changing, according to clients, is comScore’s focus on their needs. Its priorities had been divided between sales and product, they said. Wiener’s tried to change that.
“He’s got a client mindset,” said Kavita Vazirani, the executive vice president of strategic insights and analytics at NBCUniversal.
“He’s said, ‘Let’s do what we’re good at and what our clients want, then the product will follow,'” Vazirani said. “And we’re always happy to test new metrics tools. We need to lead and innovate on measurement, so we are always willing to participate in these sorts of tests.”
It seems revealing that both Hulu and NBCUniversal executives referred to comScore’s new product as a test.
The jury is still out on the comeback.