Why Digital Video Players Should Stop Comparing Their Viewership to TV

YouTube, Fullscreen take misleading shots at traditional media

Numbers never lie. But they can surely be manipulated.

And during the past two weeks of NewFronts presentations, digital video players took that to heart.

During YouTube's Brandcast, CEO Susan Wojcicki made the bold claim that "on mobile alone, YouTube now reaches more 18- to 49-year-olds than any network." And she didn't stop there, adding that the online video hub reaches more young adults during prime time than the top 10 TV shows combined.

Wojcicki wasn't the only one launching verbal missiles at traditional television. Just a few days later, as multichannel network Fullscreen was touting its evolution into a full-fledged media company, its head of sales Kevin McGurn added even more fuel to the fire.

Fullscreen is rolling up its top 25 male- and female-skewing channels and selling it as one package to advertisers, dubbed HisScreen and HerScreen, allowing brands to make a single buy across popular creators' channels like Grace Helbig and the Fine Brothers.

Instead of letting that do the talking, McGurn decided to compare the combined reach of those packages to single television programs, which is becoming a popular way for digital players to compare themselves to television. For example, McGurn said the combined reach of the HisScreen channels was comparable to college football's Sugar Bowl and AMC's The Walking Dead.

"I think they're [making these comparisons] because they need a big number," Charlie Fiordalis, Chief Digital Officer at Media Storm, told Adweek. "But I don't see it necessarily as a meaningful number."

Fullscreen shared with Adweek how McGurn was able to make that comparison, and while it's all factually correct, it's not exactly a 1-to-1 ratio.

Because Nielsen doesn't measure how linear TV shows perform on mobile and other non-TV platforms, Fullscreen is only able to compare itself against the viewers that are watching TV on TV.

Also, a video only has to start and run a few seconds to register a view, while what they're comparing against TV is the average audience: the amount of viewers tuned in at any given time.

So how does Fullscreen get to the point where it can claim its top male-skewing channels outpace AMC's The Walking Dead, one of the most-watched scripted shows on TV among young adults? First, it adds up the number of video views (the amount of times that a video is started) to get a gross estimate. Then it applies average frequency estimates to determin the unduplicated audience. For this specific comparison, Fullscreen estimated users watch 10 videos per week on average.

For HisScreen, Fullscreen estimates a total of 100 million views per week, but since it estimated the average user is watching 10 videos per week, it compared itself against TV shows that averaged 10 million male viewers on a live + 7 basis.

Fullscreen found that Walking Dead telecasts during the first quarter of 2016 averaged 4.5 million male viewers, enabling it to make this claim. But it averaged all 18 airings, which include encore airings along with the first-run broadcasts, artificially lowering the numbers. And that 100 million views encompasses all demos not just male—it skews about 90 percent male—but it's only comparing HisScreen solely against male viewership for The Walking Dead.

YouTube's claim was based on similar funky, though factually correct, math.

The problem with making these lofty comparisons is that trying to put a two-minute video on YouTube up against an hour-long drama isn't exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, it's more like comparing apples to Apple computers. What's most peculiar is that these companies don't need to make these comparisons.

Unlike a few years ago, when the NewFronts featured only a handful of presenters, compared to more than 35 this year, digital outlets no longer need to convince ad buyers on the massive popularity of web video. Advertisers only need to walk the red carpet at YouTube's Brandcast to see the hoards of teenage girls screaming for these online creators as if they were at a Beatles concert. It also feels a bit counterintuitive, since the past year has seen a marriage between old and new media, with traditional companies like NBCUniversal and Turner investing millions of dollars in digital-native partners Vox, BuzzFeed and Mashable.

"When we're trying to make these comparisons, we should try to make the most fair comparisons," said Fiordalis. "We do not have a standard set of metrics in digital that compare to the metrics in the traditional universe." 

But as the broadcast networks get ready for their time on stage next week, YouTube and its digital brethren are trying to land a bigger chunk of the available advertising dollars. The lack of a standardized measurement between digital and TV forces these companies to shove themselves into a box they really shouldn't even bother with; advertisers don't buy time on YouTube the same way they would on NBC.

While these digital companies are simply exploiting the lack of unified metrics, it also leaves them up for criticism, especially with the traditional TV industry under fire from advertisers as younger viewers increasingly move away from the way Nielsen measures them. And it didn't take long for those in traditional media to start firing back.

"They're probably going to find a way to make it apples-to-apples that favors them," says Fiordalis, who expects the broadcast networks to return fire next week. "Then it's just going to hurt everyone."