TV networks still stinging from last summer's weak upfront marketplace are getting ready to wield a new weapon against their up-and-coming digital rivals: questions about how many online ads consumers actually see.
Web publishers now define ads as "viewable" if half their pixels appear onscreen for one second, and calls videos viewable if they appear halfway onscreen and play for two seconds.
"That would be considered a makegood in any other medium," said Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer at the ad buying power GroupM, referring to the credits given when advertisers don't get what they paid for.
Of course, TV isn't perfect: There's no accounting for people walking out of the room during commercial breaks or fast-forwarding through recorded ads. "But the opportunity for exposure is still there," Mr. Scanzoni said.
And long-form video purchased through a TV programmer typically has anywhere from 70% to 90% viewability rate, according to TV executives and media buyers, better than many digital rivals.
Expect TV executives to at least whisper all this during this year's upfront, the annual bazaar for ad time in the upcoming season, as they try to blunt the competition from digital.
A&E Networks briefly addressed viewability at its upfront presentation last year, but the issue is now coming to the forefront of conversation, according to Mel Berning, the company's chief revenue officer.
"I expect digital viewability to emerge as an even bigger issue during this year's upfront," Mr. Berning said. "There has been a great deal of visibility into the extent and pervasiveness of the problem. And it's negligent for agencies, media and marketing professionals to cast a blind eye and view the current levels of performance as acceptable. No other form of media would tolerate these levels of fraud and lax viewability."
"That said," Mr. Berning added, "it's a mistake to paint all digital publishers with the same brush."
Media buyers appear sympathetic to networks' arguments.
"TV vendors can make the argument that doing business with their TV or digital properties guarantees your ad will be seen," said Chris Geraci, president-national broadcast, OMD. "They will likely use that to promote their own digital video."
While online advertising has a bigger viewability problem with display ads than online video, the whole conversation is making buyers look harder at digital buys, increasingly demanding that every ad paid for meets the definition of "viewable."
"The viewability issue is probably more acute on display and programmatic than video, but I do think it will play a role in deciding if budgets go to digital versus TV," said David Cohen, chief investment officer, UM.
At GroupM, the agency is trying to maximize the opportunity for an ad to be seen, Mr. Scanzoni said. And that includes video, where it wants ads to appear onscreen in full and to run through at least the midpoint with the sound on.
"We want to bring online video as close as possible to the viewability metric of TV," Mr. Scanzoni said. Under GroupM's new standards, only about one in four impressions online will qualify, he added.
While Mr. Scanzoni doesn't necessarily predict the conversation around viewability will pull dollars out of digital and back into TV during this year's upfront, he said that could eventually happen if viewability numbers don't improve or publishers don't start protecting advertisers with aggressive guarantees.
For the moment, however, TV networks will be treading carefully.
"I'm trying to figure out how to subtly address it," one TV executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I don't want to look like a dinosaur bashing digital. There's a fine line and we need to find a careful way to weave it into conversations."