TV Upfront

ABC Edges Toward Programmatic in Test of Data-Driven Buying for Digital Video

Won't Involve Real-Time Bidding or Open Exchange

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'Scandal.' Credit: ABC

ABC plans to begin testing a new level of data-driven ad sales for its online video inventory this summer, according to the network, in the latest step by TV networks toward programmatic ad selling and buying.

The new trial won't include staples of programmatic tech such as real-time-bidding and open exchanges, and it won't include commercial time on TV.

Instead the near-term goal is to let advertisers apply data to their purchases in ABC content, something that has been difficult to do, and move toward some of the automation that is common in digital ad sales. ABC also wants to modernize and simplify workflows by moving away from the faxes and emails that are still used when making TV buys.

The test will offer long-form and short-form digital video inventory from ABC entertainment and news programming, as well as sibling cable network ABC Family, to select upfront advertisers as part of the trial. Geri Wang, president of ABC Sales, planned to announce the test during the network's upfront pitch to advertisers in New York City on Tuesday afternoon.

ABC typically can't identify digital video inventory that matches the increasingly precise targets marketers are seeking based on their own data, meaning advertisers can only get audience guarantees based on age and sex.

The trial will attempt to improve on that system with new tools and data from Freewheel, an ad-serving platform acquired by Comcast earlier this year. ABC will be the first media company to offer video inventory through a new Freewheel product called FourFronts Programmatic, which connects ad sellers' inventory systems with ad buyers' demand-side platforms. The partnership will let ABC identify targeted inventory in real time and deliver those impressions to advertisers, ABC said.

Freewheel's platform is designed to apply data to TV content without sharing marketers' proprietary data with the network, according to Jon Heller, co-founder and co-CEO of Freewheel. It can also ensure "competitive separation," he said, preventing rival marketers from running ads near each other.

The offering will be limited to "reserved" inventory, meaning clients will need to commit ahead of time to certain spending levels over a period of time in order to participate.

Pooja Midha, senior VP-digital sales and operations, ABC, said the network is testing the program on highly desirable inventory, not remnant time it can't otherwise sell. ABC will be able to garner higher ad rates by virtue of offering better targeting, she said.

Freewheel will make its tools available to other media partners in the future.

While the test could be an important step in applying data to media buys, there's still a hesitancy in applying programmatic ad sales technology to traditional TV. When asked if ABC could apply Freewheel's tools to TV in the future, Ms. Midha said the focus right now is on digital inventory.

In the world on online display ads, where there is a plethora of inventory, programmatic technology has become an important part of the battle for ad dollars. But for TV, where inventory is much more limited, especially on the Big Four broadcasters, and networks are still able to garner price increases in the upfront marketplace, there's less incentive to experiment with programmatic technologies that could loosen control over pricing and who advertises.

All the same, some networks are starting to take early steps in this year's upfronts. NBC Universal president of ad sales Linda Yaccarino said last month that the network group is prepared to sell a small amount of TV inventory programmatically in a private exchange. That will only be made available for select clients on an individual basis.

And last year A&E Networks, among others, joined a consortium led by IPG Mediabrands' Magna Global to create a programmatic planning approach meant to help clients to buy TV more intelligently.

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