Going for the Gold (Standard)

NBC is using the Olympics' huge audience to hone multiplatform data

There’s the hundred-yard dash, the shot put and, of course, Alan Wurtzel’s favorite Olympic event: data measurement on tens of millions of fans over 17 days. “It’s a huge amount of use,” said Wurtzel, NBCUniversal’s president of research and media development.

The Olympics give NBCU a chance to look at data on a much larger scale than usual, and this year the media conglomerate is teaming up with Google and Web measurement company comScore to dig into viewer habits on all platforms—TV, smartphone, tablet and PC.

It’s wildly expensive for NBCU to license the games, making this data even more valuable. Wurtzel led a seminar at an Advertising Research Foundation conference called “The Billion-Dollar Measurement Lab,” a title he said is only “sort of a joke.” NBCU bid a total of $2 billion for the 2010 and 2012 games, which GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt (then in charge of NBCU) said would ultimately cost the company “a couple hundred million bucks.”

Wurtzel is using the measurement opportunity the Olympics presents to tackle one of television’s biggest problems: It’s hard to accurately measure viewership when the primary source of data—Nielsen figures, culled from just 25,000 to 30,000 households—doesn’t scale accurately for smaller networks. Wurtzel’s example: a few years ago, demo viewership on CNBC suddenly plummeted, and no one could figure out why. No competitors had tried anything new, and nothing about the lineup had changed. So Wurtzel did some digging and discovered that three Nielsen viewers had turned 55. Three. Nielsen has since expanded its panel size, but the problem persists without a panel that’s at least 1 million.

This summer, Wurtzel hopes to make equivalent the metrics used to measure ad time on TV and ad time on mobile, tablets and PCs with an eye toward enlarging NBC’s sample set. With about 3,000 viewers working with Google and 750 working with comScore, he’s testing and refining trackers for smartphones and tablets, cookies for users’ computers and one app that, like the song-identifying program Shazam, “listens” to your television using your phone and tells Google, comScore and NBCU what you’re watching. If a fair metric can be developed, Wurtzel said he hopes to see it spread into wider use after the games. But TV is “an adversarial business,” he said. “They all assume that if it’s good for you, it can’t be good for me.”

Nielsen isn’t going away, but NBCU’s Olympics initiative will help the network mine more accurate data across platforms. Whether NBCU’s efforts improve the accuracy of its own data, all the networks would have to agree on one standard—and that could be a much tougher battle.

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