Online video measurement still a challenge

Which lays claim to the bigger Internet audience: YouTube’s “Evolution of Dance” or Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance?”

Revver’s “Lonelygirl15″ or CBS’ “Two and a Half Men”?

Figuring out exactly who’s watching what online is proving to be a frustrating job for measurement firms, which are racing to catch up with the recent boom in Web viewership. According to research firm eMarketer, about 107 million Americans watched Web video at least once a month in 2006.

“We’re sort of in the Middle Ages,” said Alan Wurtzel, president of research at NBC Universal. “Online video measurement is very primitive and very inaccurate.”

It’s impossible, for instance, to determine what the most popular piece of Internet video content was last week, though Nielsen easily cranks out the analogous info for traditional television.

Several factors make measuring online video consumption much more challenging. Videos are delivered in a variety of digital formats, some of which are streamed live onto a viewer’s computer, while others are downloaded to be watched later (or not). Some sites, like YouTube, chalk up a view every time a video begins playing, while others think it is important to evaluate how much of a video a user has actually watched. And the same vid may be distributed on many different sites.

“We want to see how a piece of content from David Letterman performs in all those different places,” said Steve Snyder, chief operating officer of CBS Interactive. “That includes mobile phones, where we deliver ‘Dave TV.’ “

Trying to fill the void are companies like comScore Networks and Nielsen/NetRatings, which built their businesses around analyzing Web site traffic and popularity. (Earlier this month, the Nielsen Co. purchased the 40% of NetRatings that it didn’t already own.) And scrappy startups like Holt Labs and Unruly Media are doing their own analysis, primarily of viral videos shared on sites like YouTube and MySpace. San Diego-based Holt operates the Web site Vidmeter.com, and Unruly Media, headquartered in London, maintains the Viral Video Chart; neither list includes content from network-run sites like CBS’ Innertube.

ComScore’s Video Metrix service, launched last August and beefed up in October, may have taken an early lead. The Chicago-based company began working with CBS last March to analyze viewing of the company’s live March Madness basketball Webcasts, finding the games attracted an audience of about 500,000 viewers daily. But while comScore says it can provide reports on the relative popularity of network-produced and user-generated video content, the company hasn’t yet chosen to release that information publicly.

“I would categorize (comScore’s Video Metrix) as still experimental,” said Adam Gerber, an exec with video-delivery firm Brightcove who also chairs the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s digital video committee.

NetRatings unveiled its own video measurement service to a “select client group” at the end of January, according to company exec Dave Osborn. Osborn wouldn’t be specific about which sites are included in NetRatings’ new Video Census, but he acknowledged that it doesn’t count shows downloaded for $1.99 from Apple’s iTunes Store. (As of January, Apple had sold 50 million TV episodes.)

To help keep the tally accurate, NetRatings’ measurement approach requires sites that deliver video content to include a snippet of software code that sends data to NetRatings’ servers; Osborn says that that data won’t be accessible to other measurement companies, which could give NetRatings a major advantage in the measurement sweepstakes if enough sites incorporate its code. Osborn says that NetRatings may begin publishing its ratings of Internet video content later this year, much as its parent company releases TV ratings.

Media companies say they’re not currently having a tough time selling advertising on their broadband video content; demand is high. “We’re still in the fools-rush-in part of the story, where lots of marketers are discovering broadband video,” said Tim Hanlon of Denuo, a division of Publicis Groupe. “But ultimately, everybody will realize that the measurement needs to improve. That which gets measured gets bought.”

But even once the measurement companies are able to parse the demographics and audience reach of individual shows or pieces of content on sites like ABC.com and Metacafe, new-media execs may want more. One possibility is gauging the number of times a video is seen on authorized sites vs. sites where it has been posted without the content owner’s permission. Another is tracking how viewers consume content on TVs, PCs and portable devices.

“The holy grail,” said Wurtzel of NBC Universal, “is to have the ability to understand how people move from watching conventional video on a TV to digital video on a computer or a cell phone and then back to the TV. If anyone can come up with that, they’ll be really rich.”

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