NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In the latest and clearest sign that TV audiences have begun to turn to other venues to enjoy their favorite programs, a large group of advertisers, media conglomerates and ad-buying firms have joined together to create a system to measure viewers across TV, the web and mobile screens. In doing so, the group could end up competing with what is currently the main purveyor of TV-audience data, Nielsen.
Among the players, according to people familiar with the situation, are NBC Universal, Time Warner, News Corp., Procter & Gamble, Unilever, CBS Corp., Discovery Communications, Viacom, AT&T, Walt Disney, WPP's Group M and Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest Group. The companies are expected to announce their venture formally in September, according to these people. The Financial Times previously reported the information.
NBC, News Corp, P&G, Unilever, Discovery, Viacom, Group M, Walt Disney's ABC and CBS declined to comment. SMG's two agencies, Starcom and MediaVest, and AT&T were not able to offer immediate comment. A Nielsen spokeswoman said the company is "not going to respond to something that is not yet announced."
ComScore is involved as well and has been talking to the TV programming and media agency members of the proposed consortium. It has made a commitment to working to create a single-source panel: cable and satellite companies would glean TV-viewing data from set-top boxes and, in the same homes, ComScore could measure internet traffic through an opt-in panel.
"Many of the players we're dealing with, whether they're cable companies, broadcasters, IPTV companies, etc., are essentially facing the same problem: What's my total picture?" said Magid Abraham, CEO of ComScore. "Clearly the most astute need is among the classic TV constituency that's trying to get full accounting of its content. But there are lots of stakeholders involved."
He said the idea would not be to replace Nielsen and its ratings as the TV-buying currency but to provide what would essentially be a planning tool, or, as he puts it, a "diagnostic tool that would say 'these are the pieces I'm missing, this is the audience duplication I see and here's the incremental reach I get by using one channel vs. a combination of channels.'"
For decades, the ad industry thrived on the rise and fall of TV-centered ad campaigns. With three broadcast networks reaching the majority of U.S. consumers, marketers could be assured that a catchy slogan or a memorable toilet-tissue-squeezing grocer would be all they needed to drum their sales pitch into the collective membrane of couch-potatoes assembled in living rooms across the country. The rise of digital cable, offering hundreds of general-entertainment and niche-interest channels; the web, offering thousands of specialty sites; and now mobile devices, with the ability to stream video, has left the mass audience that once flocked to TV and nothing else diminished and fractionalized.
Scrambling for alternatives
That has forced many advertisers and networks to scramble for alternative measures and techniques. One is to measure audience recall of shows, ads and product placements. Many networks and advertisers signed up with a company called IAG to establish a sort of alternative currency in this area before Nielsen bought the company in April 2008. More recently, ESPN and CNN have aligned themselves with an independent firm, Keller Fay, in an attempt to determine whether ads on their networks create more word-of-mouth or purchase intent among viewers.
Whatever the results of these efforts, they make one thing very clear: It's no longer enough for marketers to rely on measures of broad-audience reach via TV to determine the success of their promotions and ad entreaties. Instead, they are increasingly relying on overlays of data, such as understanding viewer behavior, interest -- even biological reaction -- in addition to traditional Nielsen ratings and numbers.
To fight back, the media companies could determine a way to aggregate audiences across dozens of different viewing experience -- and get marketers to acknowledge that the collection of viewership data has meaning. What advertiser wouldn't want to understand, for example, how many people watched ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" during its traditional Thursday night broadcast, or during a DVR playback session three or four days later, online via computer, or through some video snippets played on an iPod or iPhone?
The problem: This type of measurement is far from perfect. Some of the audience may be duplicated across viewing sessions (a TV viewer may be the same person watching something online). What's more, different kinds of viewers have different kinds of behavior. A consumer watching "Family Guy" online may be more or less attentive to the content and the ads that come with it than one watching the same program on TV. An iPod viewer may watch just short snippets of "30 Rock" while a TV viewer will want to watch an entire episode.
Progress being made
Over the last several years, NBC Universal has made some progress in this area. The General Electric-owned conglomerate has offered advertisers what it calls a "Tami," or a total audience measurement index, that purports to measure the number of people viewing a program across many different kinds of TV-viewing experiences. During its 2008 broadcast of the Summer Olympics, NBC's research department attempted to measure and chronicle consumption of approximately 3,600 hours of Olympics content across a broad array of broadcast, cable and digital channels. In some cases, consenting viewers were given handheld devices that recorded their daily activity. In one instance, a viewer was seen not only watching TV, for example, but also engaging in a fairly lengthy session with a mobile device.
Formation of this new group could be taken as a tacit admission by the media industry that TV is no longer as dominant a medium as it once was, and is functioning more in tandem with other video venues. While big communal events such as the Super Bowl and the Olympics tend to bring the big audiences advertisers love, most TV shows do not. When veteran NBC series "ER" ended its run back in April, a two-hour program snared about 16.4 million people. Back in 2003, big NBC shows such as "The Apprentice," "Friends," "Law & Order" -- and "ER," too -- each brought in, on average, between 14 million and 21 million live-plus-same-day viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.
As glitzy as the new assemblage is, there's no assurance its efforts will succeed. Recent history has been littered with new attempts to chronicle behavior of viewers in a digital world. The technical hurdles and costs of doing this right are immense. And while the marketers, agencies and media like to huff and puff, when it comes to actually putting down money to seriously develop an alternative, they tend to quietly head for the exits.
In February of 2008, Nielsen and Arbitron ended a venture known as "Project Apollo" that aimed to determine once and for all how exposure to a wide variety of media and marketing tactics influences purchases by tracking consumers' combined media and purchasing habits in a single-source database. P&G was a major supporter of the effort, into which Arbitron and Nielsen sank more than $45 million, based on previous financial disclosures by the publicly held Arbitron, which owned half the joint venture.
For its part, Nielsen has already mounted two panels that aim to measure viewership data across multiple screens. Whether the rival effort from the media companies and ad players will develop into a serious rival or a means of leveraging Nielsen to bring better efficiency to its product remains to be seen.
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Andrew Hampp and Jack Neff contributed to this report.