TV Upfronts

This Year's Upfront Might Feel Like Business as Usual, but a Metrics Revolution Is Underway

Marketers are exploring alternatives and testing different currencies

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Last year, the very foundation on which television advertising is bought and sold—Nielsen’s rating metrics—started to crumble.

Following months of controversy and client outrage, the Media Rating Council pulled Nielsen’s national and local TV accreditation last September after the measurement company admitted it had undercounted TV viewership following its inability to maintain the integrity of its in-home panel during the Covid-19 pandemic. That was the proverbial final straw that prompted almost all the major media and holding companies to accelerate their own efforts to create alternative currencies to Nielsen’s, announcing partnerships with other measurement companies, and each other in some cases.

“Nielsen ratings are broken,” Kelly Abcarian, evp, measurement and impact at NBCUniversal advertising and partnerships (and a former Nielsen exec), told Adweek in February. “Now it’s time for our industry to move forward and help our advertisers get this right.” But heading into this year’s $20 billion upfront, marketers are left to navigate all of the new measurement options alongside the reality that there is currently no accredited currency on which the industry can rely.

That’s why this year, the TV industry will still transact against Nielsen’s C3—and in some cases C7—ratings, according to executives across several major holding companies. That will be the case even though trust in the measurement giant is at an all-time low. Additionally, the MRC announced last month that the earliest Nielsen’s accreditation could be reinstated is Q3 2022, long after upfront negotiations will have wrapped. On March 29, Nielsen was sold to a private equity consortium in a $16 billion deal, putting the company’s future even more in question.

Meanwhile, the entire industry is exploring alternatives and testing different currencies and vendors, but those companies are unable to quickly switch from their established systems, processes and planning procedures. 

Marketers told Adweek that the next three to six months will be all about testing and shadowing existing systems before making bigger changes in 2023. In fall 2024, Nielsen expects to complete its conversion to unified cross-measurement solution Nielsen One, with Nielsen One Alpha out now, but it remains to be seen whether the industry will move to that new metric.

“Not that we’re going to abandon Nielsen, but we need to explore what other options are out there,” said David Campanelli, chief investment officer at Horizon Media. “We are actively working with many networks to do that. The goal is to do as much analysis as we can of our clients’ schedules across networks, platforms, demographics and services. The more information we can gather, the more comfortable we can be moving forward using some of these alternative currencies.”  

Holding companies expect to transact some individual deals with clients this year using alternative currencies involving other measurement companies like iSpot.tv and VideoAmp. Such deals are estimated to account for between 10% and 30% of total business in this year’s upfront, according to one research executive. Last month, NBCUniversal said that for the first time, it will be transacting some upfront deals on iSpot, alongside Nielsen.


What’s the Alternative?

While Nielsen data will remain the currency of record for the majority of this year’s upfront negotiations, all of the major media companies and holding companies are running their own tests with their own preferred vendors, often in concert with each other.

Perhaps the most visible of these is NBCUniversal’s test-and-learn with iSpot.tv. NBCU ran measurement tests with iSpot.tv in earnest this year during the Winter Olympics and Super Bowl 56 as part of its Q1 trials with its first certified measurement partner. The tests were so successful that NBCU said last month it will transact some of its upfront deals on iSpot for the first time ever. At the same time, the company also certified several new measurement partners, including Comscore, Conviva, DoubleVerify, Integral Ad Science, Oracle Advertising, Comcast-owned FreeWheel and Innovid.


Meanwhile, Discovery is partnering with holding company Omnicom Media Group to run measurement tests with Comscore and VideoAmp, while separately, WarnerMedia is working with all three major alternative providers: Comscore, iSpot.tv and VideoAmp. However, the future of each of those tests remains to be seen, with the completed merger this month of WarnerMedia and Discovery as Warner Bros. Discovery.


Paramount Global, formerly ViacomCBS, is partnering with holding company Dentsu to run trials with VideoAmp. And the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) is working with its member companies and measurement vendors on its Cross-Media Measurement initiative. The Video Advertising Bureau (VAB) and the 4A’s joined that initiative in December.



Moving to impression-based models

Buyers and sellers alike agree the industry is moving toward transacting on impressions, but how and when everyone gets there is in question.

“We agree that an impression-based model is the right way to go, and it is where we need to be,” said Allie Kallish, evp, managing director, strategic investment at Magna Global. “The challenge is you can’t just turn on a dime. We need a system that is predictable, representative and scalable across platforms. As much as we all hate to admit it, 15-second, 30-second, 60-second ads all have issues that we’ve been dealing with in TV since it was invented. When you switch to impressions, that all goes away, and rightly so.”

Three alternative measurement companies—iSpot.tv, VideoAmp and Comscore—have risen to the top, although there are others in the mix. Expectations for what these companies will offer clients are high.

“There are six criteria that we are looking at when we take in all of this data,” said Brian Hughes, evp, managing director, audience intelligence and strategy at Magna Global. “Completeness: Are we getting a holistic view of the marketplace?; personification: How are vendors turning the data and assigning it to audiences?; representation: Are all identity groups represented?; stability: Do the outputs make sense, and is it forecastable?; scalability: Can it cover everybody?; and future-proofness: Is it adaptable?” 

Hitting all of these criteria is something both the buy and sell sides are working toward, but most buyers agree that no one currency or company will emerge to cover all transactions.

“There’s a section of the marketplace, particularly on the agency side, that says we have to have a one-currency solution,” Campanelli said. “I don’t subscribe to that. We have to think differently than we’ve always thought. I understand why that’s worked historically—we’ve had to be able to compare network to network, client to client. That goes away when you move to a multicurrency world.”

One example of how companies are partnering to establish measurement parameters is Discovery Inc. and Omnicom Media Group’s trial (prior to the WarnerMedia-Discovery merger earlier this month) with Comscore and VideoAmp measuring campaigns for five clients: AT&T and State Farm, an automotive brand, a retail brand and a CPG brand. 

“We’ve been testing with VideoAmp for years now, just in a different format,” said Geoffrey Calabrese, chief investment officer at Omnicom Media Group North America. “Things have moved from pixels into a safer, clean-room environment. As our partners begin to identify their preferred currency or measurement partners, we are testing with those as well. We’re pretty agnostic as to whom we partner with. It’s our belief that there will not be a singular currency as we move forward.” 

OMG is doing a lot of work with partners in clean-room environments, allowing it to “marry data in a privacy-compliant way,” Calabrese said. 

Clean rooms let companies merge first-party data from advertisers with data from specific platform providers to get a look at customer behavior in a controlled environment. “[Using clean rooms] ultimately gives us more visibility into the data, which goes to more optimization and control over planning, allocation and measurement,” said Megan Pagliuca, OMG’s chief activation officer. 

Parsing the panel

While systems that gather impression-based data are becoming more established, measuring age- and gender-based demographic performance also has become more challenging with the integrity of Nielsen’s panel in question and no backups in place to take up the slack. 

Everyone interviewed for this story agreed that a panel is needed to be able to drill down and get specific demographic information, but there was also consensus that Nielsen’s current panel size of 35,000-40,000 participants is too small to accurately extrapolate projections. As a result, buyers and sellers alike are considering moving off of legacy demographic guarantees—such as adults 18-49 and women 25-54—and on to other, more relevant marketing metrics. In addition, the conventional wisdom is no longer that consumers older than 55, many of whom are at the height of their buying power, aren’t worth courting with marketing messages.

“The problem with vendors such as VideoAmp, Comscore and iSpot is that they are looking at data sets of 30 million households instead of 35,000 households, so they are getting limited demographic information,” Campanelli said. “Adults 18-49 or [women] 25-54 is going to fall off or not be available because [networks] don’t have demographic information.”

Another executive said some in the industry are pushing London-based Kantar Group to create a much larger panel of 200,000-300,000 people. While a panel of that size would go a long way toward providing better demographic information, it’s also expensive to mount and maintain, and as a result, may not be feasible, another executive said. Ultimately, most expect that a hybrid solution—marrying panel data with automatic content recognition (ACR) data—will ultimately emerge. Companies such as TVision are already working on those types of solutions.

Like so many industries, the pandemic has completely disrupted the buying and selling of advertising and has accelerated change more quickly than anyone expected. The process of establishing new measurement parameters—and evolving currency—is complicated and chaotic, but necessary. 

“There has to be some sort of comfort in uncertainty in order for us to evolve,” said Diana Bernstein, evp, managing director of investment at Havas Media Group. “We’re on the right path. We just have to do our due diligence to see the vision and know where we need to be going.”

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This story first appeared in the April 18, 2022, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.