Broadcasters Bet Big on Pooling Their Attribution Efforts. But Will It Pay Off?

Many hurdles remain before the fusion of TV and digital advertising is realized

illustration of devices about ad targeting
OpenAP aims to help standardize audiences across a wide variety of screens. Getty Images

The television industry is widely predicted to be on the cusp of a revolution in how advertisers can target viewers, one in which  broadcasters hope to slash their ad load without sacrificing revenue.

In the industry’s early attempts to enable this ideal at scale, differences of opinion when it comes to the very fundamentals of ad targeting have led to hiccups. But many of broadcasting’s biggest names remain committed to the proposition.

The fragmented media landscape is causing confusion over what TV actually means–linear? digital? streaming? all of the above?—making it difficult to define a unified consumer experience for advertisers. That is what led Turner, Viacom and Fox to join forces in 2017 and roll out OpenAP, a unified marketplace for next generation TV advertising.

It's tough to get cooperation in the industry.
Ross Benes, analyst with eMarketer

Theoretically, everyone wins: Media buyers have an easier time buying, and broadcasters have an easier time selling. But some experts remain skeptical about its execution.

The sheer number of screens and platforms in the contemporary TV landscape has led to advertiser confusion, according to Ross Benes, an eMarketer analyst who focuses on connected TV.

“There just hasn’t been a great way for all of the underlying ad tech to communicate,” Benes said. “If someone’s running a particular campaign, they might be buying on YouTube, Hulu and Roku, each with their own ad servers. When you add in the targeting vendors and the different APIs, it just gets compounded into this massive logistical headache.”

The original idea of a centralized OpenAP TV marketplace dates back to 2017, with the consortium initially formed by Viacom, Fox and Turner (renamed WarnerMedia after AT&T acquired it last summer); NBCUniversal joined a year later.

Then WarnerMedia pulled out of OpenAP in March, opting to pursue its advanced TV ambitions with its AT&T stablemate Xandr. The three remaining members stayed committed, doubling down a month later with OpenAP 2.0 and adding the 85 million-strong household footprint of NCC Media (co-owned by Charter Communications, Comcast Corporation and Cox Communications) to its stable.

One of the main reasons behind OpenAP’s stuttering start has been the lack of clear guidelines to addressable TV, according to sources.

“Networks back then were still afraid and opposed to the notion of addressable,” said Alan Wolk, lead analyst at TV[R]EV. “Not only that, most of them didn’t have a way to make that happen; they just didn’t have any of the first-party data and didn’t know who was watching.”

The gap between TV audiences and online targeting

The meteoric rise in popularity of connected television (CTV) and OTT devices is helping bring audiences into better focus, but advertisers are still struggling to reach their desired demographics.

For instance, if a major advertiser wants to go beyond the typical Nielsen demographics and reach a particular audience—say, new mothers—each broadcaster has a different definition of that target demographic. One, for example, might define it as women with children under 2 years old, while another might lower that age to younger than 6 months.

This is the problem OpenAP was originally meant to solve, consolidating ad-tech partners and attribution methods so advertisers can target select demographics across an aggregated marketplace that could “get everyone speaking the same language,” per Wolk.

Similarly, earlier this year, the Media Rating Council released a draft of its cross-media measurement standards that proposes a singular set of measurement metrics for audiences across television, OTT and digital video.

This formed part of the MRC’s Making Measurement Make Sense initiative and is the kind of standard most brands are asking for, according to Oleg Korenfeld, the chief platforms officer at Wavemaker.

The MRC recently concluded a consultation period with industry stakeholders like the Association of National Advertisers on proposed standards for measuring video ad exposure across different screens, according to reports. These included increasing on-page pixel loads for an ad to be deemed viewable from 50% to 100%.

However, when it comes to attribution, what’s possible and what’s necessary are two different things, according to Korenfeld, and will require more than projects such as OpenAP and new MRC metrics.

This is because linear and digital streaming services use entirely different metrics. Linear focuses on ZIP codes and household demographics, whereas digital targets users down to their individual device using cookies and tracking pixels.

Other experts questioned the validity of consolidating these attribution metrics.

“It’s so apples to oranges,” Benes said. “Historically, it’s just been different companies using different measurements for each of these mediums, and advertisers have developed habits to rely on those standards.”

Although there are mesh networks that can tie identifying information to users, these methods are “probabilistic, not deterministic,” Korenfeld said. This is among the reasons why streaming viewers might get hit with the same ad five or six times in one sitting.

Meanwhile, Benes added, it could be difficult to sell a TV buyer that’s used to Nielsen measurements on an ad break that barely hits the 6-second mark, which are common in the world of digital video and on sites like YouTube. “It’s just a lot of inertia to overcome,” he said.

When media buyers are working in the video space—which is traditionally a large, expensive unit—they’re looking for scale that simply isn’t available in channels like OTT, added Korenfeld.

Right now, platforms have only a handful of publishers with any sort of ad space. Not only that, it’s expensive to access that channel’s data. “When you look at the costs to get a relatively small reach, you start asking if it’s worth it,” explained Korenfeld.

Although the promise may initially appear to be a fusion of the scale of TV audiences with the accuracy of digital ad targeting, there is still some way left to go with historic competitive wariness blighting initiatives such as OpenAP, according to sources.

“It’s tough to get cooperation in the industry,” explained Benes. “So, they have a lot of work to do before what their vision and goal is to actually be realized.

“When you’re getting four huge [media companies]—and you’ll probably want to add more over time—to cooperate, that’s a lot of competing interests and a lot of voices that all have to agree on something.”

Despite apparent setbacks caused by some major U.S. providers’ efforts, the move toward standardization is continuing with OpenAP confirming David Levy, the TrueX co-founder and ex-Fox Networks Group evp, as its inaugural CEO. As OpenAP 2.0 rolls out this fall, Levy is eager to convince the market that OpenAP can “rise above competition,” he said in May.

@swodinsky Shoshana Wodinsky is Adweek's platforms reporter, where she covers the financial and societal impacts of major social networks. She was previously a tech reporter for The Verge and NBC News.