Is This the Long-Awaited Answer to Measuring Video Viewers Everywhere They’re Watching?

Handicapping the cross-platform players

Illustration: Paul Blow

Call it the time-shifted, made-for-tablets Winter Olympics. When Americans took in the jumps, spills and crashes from Sochi in February, they made Olympic history of their own. Viewing on mobile apps shot up a staggering 387 percent versus the Vancouver Games four years prior, according to internal NBCUniversal data, while on-demand TV viewing more than tripled.

And yet, frustratingly for NBCUniversal, which carried the Olympics, that meteoric growth in the mobile audience wasn’t reflected in the TV ratings against which all guarantees are made. Per Nielsen, viewing on linear TV dropped 12 percent when compared to the 2010 Vancouver Games.

The Sochi Olympics are only the latest example of the complex challenges measurement providers face when trying to keep up with the evolving dynamics of viewing behavior. “We are a third-world country when it comes to media measurement,” says Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development at NBCU. “We are woefully behind in virtually every kind of measurement and nowhere near where we need to be in cross-platform measurement.”

The cracks are starting to show in the current system, which tracks consumption based on the device being used and does not reflect the total number of unique viewers a program delivers on each platform, known as unduplicated reach. “What the industry needs is the ability to continuously monitor the migration of consumption across platforms and understand the value of one platform versus another,” says Lyle Schwartz, managing partner and director of research and marketplace analysis at GroupM Worldwide.

Though the holy grail of accurately measuring audiences across screens with one common metric remains elusive, a pair of new initiatives suggests there finally may be light at the end of the cross-platform tunnel. Indeed, the topic came up multiple times on stage at last week’s 4A’s conference.

In a long-awaited development, Nielsen intends to add viewing on mobile devices to its C3 TV ratings stream in the fall. (The currency against which nearly all guarantees are made, C3 blends average live commercial ratings with three days of time-shifted viewing.) In a bid to more accurately capture every eyeball, Nielsen is supplying software for broadcasters and Web video publishers to embed into their video players and apps that will tally the number of views for their programs.

Demographic data from Facebook and Experian will be layered in to produce census-style mobile video measurement. If the mobile version of the program carries the same ad load as the original telecast and is viewed within three days of broadcast, it gets added to the C3 ratings. If not, it updates Nielsen’s digital ratings. Viewing on PCs and laptops won’t be measured this way until sometime next year.

Of course, if the networks have their say, the C3 currency will be phased out in time for the 2014-15 upfront, which would further complicate the measurement landscape. “We already have a couple of C7 deals operating right now,” CBS Corp. president and CEO Les Moonves said earlier this month. And with a new dynamic ad insertion scheme in place, the network will be able to extend the value of its VOD offerings well past seven days. “The ideal world is, every eyeball we get paid for in two different ways. It’s a beautiful country,” Moonves joked.

Returning to developments that are locked in for the fall, the Nielsen enhancement is a mashup of representative panel measurement and census counting. “Between both sets of numbers, we’ll create that unduplicated reach so advertisers can get a holistic view of their reach across platforms,” says Nielsen evp of global product leadership Megan Clarken. “We’re opening up the marketplace for broadcasters to be able to monetize their assets in ways they haven’t been able to do before.”

Meanwhile, comScore has ambitious plans of its own to crack the cross-platform code. For the past year, the digital measurement provider has been working with ESPN and the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement (CIMM) to test a system that tracks video, audio and text across five platforms: TV, radio, computers, smartphones and tablets. Intended more as a media-planning tool than a new ratings currency, the experimental product uses a hybrid methodology that combines big data with panel measurement from four independent but overlapping data sets. One panel tracks radio and TV, another measures computers and TV, and still another keeps tabs on smartphones, tablets and computers. A fourth, much smaller calibration panel monitors consumption on all five screens, acting as a checkpoint to ensure the combined sample falls in line with national standards.

ComScore’s Project Blueprint is being closely watched by a group of 10 participating networks, including ESPN, ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC, as well as three agency holding companies. ComScore says it will determine the launch date for a syndicated service based on successful completion of the tests this fall.

Subscribers would have weekly, even daily, data to evaluate the cross-media performance of their campaigns and make tweaks along the way. “All signs are it’s a needed product, especially for advertisers and agencies,” says comScore vp, television and cross-media service Joan FitzGerald. “They don’t have very good data to drive their decisions about shifting dollars across different platforms.”

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