Facebook vs. TV: Marketing's New Enemy is 'Truthiness'

It's Time for Accountability in Reporting Audience Numbers

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Stephen Colbert rose to become host of "The Late Show" after a long run of "Colbert Report" satire he called "truthiness" -- put-on seriousness while spewing flagrant inaccuracies to twist a germ of fact into an absurd conclusion. His gut-splitting bits were funny because you knew it was entertainment, and nobody was betting a business on his absurd conclusions.

Just when Colbert has laid down "truthiness" on TV, a new form of truthiness about TV has popped up. This one is actually dangerous to anyone trying to build a business through the best mix of modern media.

Last week, Facebook got press coverage with a study that claimed the platform reaches more millennial and Hispanic consumers than TV. The headline "Nielsen Research for Facebook Shows It Now Edges TV in Reaching Millennials, Hispanics" probably grabbed your attention. It certainly grabbed mine, because I knew it had to be truthiness propped up by incomplete math.

Specifically, the Facebook study compared only the top-10 TV networks to Facebook, omitting the other 100 networks Nielsen measures.

Guess what? Fully 70% of TV's millennial viewing is on those other 100 networks.

Facebook said marketers could reach just 12.2% of millennials through a TV-only plan in a "typical month." That's because 70% of the viewers aren't being counted. The actual numbers: TV reaches 88% of millennials (adults 18 to 34) monthly, and 77% of them weekly (Nielsen, May 2015).

The bigger truth is this: On a monthly basis, millennials watch 64 hours of TV (on a TV set), while they spend 23 hours with Facebook.

Consider the full spectrum of media (TV, PC, tablet and smartphone), and the score is 101 to 23 in multi-screen TV's favor: Millennials spend 101 hours with TV content vs. 23 hours with Facebook on a monthly basis.

Why point out the real numbers? Because many marketers are falling out of touch with actual currency in media. Amid a barrage of dizzying claims about the reach and impact of ad-tech platforms, it's easy to let one's guard down and stop questioning a prevailing narrative of revolution.

Indeed, Facebook's claim of millennial parity with TV rides a wave of misinformation that young people are abandoning TV for all things digital. The numbers simply don't bear this out. In this case, millennials spend more time watching TV on PC, tablet and smartphone screens than they spend doing everything on Facebook.

Facebook's reach aspirations also presuppose parity between stamp-sized prompts on a mobile device and storytelling on a 54-inch screen.

They're altogether different dynamics and relationships. Younger viewers commit to multiscreen TV for world-class content ­that comes from a $45 billion annual investment in programming. They drive such TV brands as Comedy Central, The CW and ESPN. And they predominate such hit shows as "Empire" (Fox), "Thicker Than Water" (Bravo), "The Voice" (NBC), "Teen Mom" (MTV), "Fear the Walking Dead" (AMC) and "American Horror Story -- Hotel" (FX).

At a time when advertisers are hyper-focused on issues of audience attention -- ad blocking, ad skipping, bots and viewability -- it's time to bring the accountability ethos to audience claims and comparisons.

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