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TV Research Chiefs Commiserate Over Measurement Challenges

SAN DIEGO — Research chiefs at some of the biggest media brands did some serious venting Tuesday at the annual Media Insights & Engagement conference.

The challenges of measuring content consumption as viewers increasingly slip away from live TV to myriad other platforms made for some candidly brutal self-assessment, particularly coming off a year when distressing audience trends accelerated significantly.

“We were sitting here a year ago thinking everything was OK,” said Howard Shimmel, chief research officer at Turner Broadcasting in a keynote panel. “I think we as an industry were somewhat unprepared.”

Subscription VOD services like Netflix have tilted the competitive landscape, according to Tom Ziangas, senior VP of research at AMC Networks. “I believe 2014 was an inflection point,” he said. “If we look at history, we’re at a point where the cable networks were when they were taking away share from the broadcast side.”

Naturally, measurement giant Nielsen itself emerged as a target of criticism for failing to keep pace with how audiences are adapting to technological changes. What made the panel even more interesting in that regard was that it was moderated by Eric Solomon, senior VP of global digital audience measurement at Nielsen.

At one point, Shimmel vented about getting better measurement services. “I think there’s money in the market for a great digital and a great crossplatform measurement service,” said Shimmel. “I don’t think Nielsen or Comscore has approached this right. It’s another shame on us sitting here.”

Solomon responded, “Shame on us for not solving this, but it is an incredibly complex problem, to give you one number across all these complex platforms. We are moving down this path.”

While the conversation never grew hostile, there was palpable frustration in the room with Nielsen; at one point, a particular barbed criticism from Shimmel regarding the company’s inability to offer desired differentiation of measurement information among live, VOD and streaming options drew applause.

“The fact that we don’t have the ability to look at a telecast of a show or the flight of a series…and don’t understand the (audience) behavior is really sad,” he said.

But Nielsen was far from the only magnet for criticism. Liz Huszarik, executive VP, media resarch and insight at Warner Bros., lamented the paucity of audience data from SVOD platforms. “We’re measuring the best we can, but because we don’t have transparency into total viewing, analytics on the Street are dinging our market cap,” she said.

Alternate data sources was a frequent topic of discussion. Justin Fromm, head of ad sales research at Hulu, called on more cooperation from Madison Avenue. “I would really love to see more data flowing back from our advertisers,” he said. “When there is all this data to help them market better, we need them to loosen the reins a little bit.”

The wide-ranging conversation also touched on the potential for programmatic buying and selling to move from digital to TV to a more sophisticated understanding of audience behavior leading to more efficient marketing efforts. “Big data” was also cited frequently, drawing a frank admission from Shimmel about the industry’s capabilities.

“It changes the type of people we need to hire in this industry,” said Shimmel. “I don’t know that people who have grown up in media research like me are really data scientists.”

David Poltrack, chief research officer at CBS Corp., was originally scheduled to appear on the panel but did not attend due to travel disruption in New York, according to Solomon.

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