As Live TV Viewing Declines, How Can Networks Fully Monetize Their Viewers?

New, multiplatform tools could help

For years, NBCUniversal's ratings guru Alan Wurtzel has been criticizing the deficiencies of Nielsen's current ratings system—he says as much as 35 percent of NBC's audience for an average episode isn't measured by Nielsen's C3 and C7 metrics, which don't include most streaming activity, particularly on mobile and tablets—and he's tired of it. "The time for just whining about this is over," said Wurtzel, NBCUniversal's president of research and media development. "We really need to get proactive."

As live TV viewing continues to decline—in the first week of the new TV season, three broadcast networks suffered double-digit drops in adults 18-49 versus a year ago: Fox (20 percent), ABC (19 percent) and NBC (10 percent)—networks and buyers have intensified their pleas for a new metric to accurately measure viewing across all platforms, and their cries are finally being heard. "One of the key elements of any ability to monetize is you need measurement," said Charles Buchwalter, president and CEO of Symphony Advanced Media. "If you can't measure it, you can't sell it."

Symphony is one of several companies diving into the ratings fray this fall, unveiling new multiplatform tools that they hope will allow them to edge out Nielsen as the new industry standard. Symphony's VideoPulse, a cloud-based service that captures live media usage by individuals across several platforms (including VOD, OTT, Web, mobile, gaming devices, DVR and linear TV), is currently being beta tested by major media companies like NBCUniversal and Viacom. "This market has been moving very quickly over a short period, and being able to use older methodologies to capture this new behavior is very difficult," said Buchwalter. "It very well could be that you just need new approaches to capture this."

Wurtzel likes what he sees so far from VideoPulse: "It's very early days there, but it looks to me like this is the first viable alternative I've seen to measure cross-platform."

But Symphony isn't the only company looking to become the next Nielsen. ComScore recently introduced Xmedia, which combines TV and digital audience metrics, and mounted an even more aggressive challenge last week by announcing plans to acquire rival Rentrak. In the deal, which is expected to close early next year, the companies will join forces and take on Nielsen for ratings measurement supremacy.

However, Nielsen isn't going down without a fight in the struggle for multiplatform metrics. The company is preparing to unveil its total audience measurement, which Nielsen says will introduce "like-for-like" metrics for digital and video—including SVOD providers like Netflix, which have refused to share any ratings metrics for years—by year's end. "The fact that there are others in the space is good motivation for us," said Steve Hasker, global president, Nielsen. "We are much further along than anyone realizes. By the fourth quarter, we'll have proprietary metrics for participating networks and digital video providers who want to see their numbers. Into next year, we'll start to be able to show more of an industrywide look."

But as networks and ratings make strides in developing long-term metric solutions, buyers worry about the lack of current short-term options to capture audiences across all platforms. "Networks have done a terrible job selling it, and agencies have done a terrible job being open to different ways to buy it," said David Campanelli, svp, director of national broadcast for Horizon Media. "If you watch VOD, it's still an experience where you're getting a lot of repeat commercials and a lot of filler because they're not selling it well. There's a lot of potential monetization being lost out there."

That should change in the next year or two, no matter whether VideoPulse or another new multiplatform measurement tool gains traction, or Nielsen makes good on its total audience measurement plans. "Either way, in the end, we'll win," said Wurtzel. "For the first time, I'm feeling that maybe we'll see the light at the end of this tunnel."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 5 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.