Big Data Summit: Commercial Breaks Are Hurting Traditional TV, Says Fox’s Randy Freer

Linear television has become disadvantaged as a viewing experience by its reliance on traditional commercial breaks, Fox Networks Group president-COO Randy Freer said Thursday in a candid Q&A held as part of Variety‘s Big Data Summit.

Freer surprised many in the audience with his candid assessment that the heavy ad loads and frequent commercial breaks in linear TV is driving consumers to alternate platforms where the viewing experience is much better.

“We spend billions of dollars as industry to create great content…and then we interrupt them 16 times with two minutes of ads,” Freer said during his keynote address at the conference held at the Montage hotel in Beverly Hills. “But if you wait a half-hour you get a much better experience. We as an industry must think about the consumer experience. We have to make it better if we want brands and people to connect and large audiences to accumulate.”

Freer said Fox, like all major content providers, is exploring options for varying degrees of direct-to-consumer businesses. Data that is available from digital platforms is helping it understand how to better connect with consumers and advertisers. But there are limits even for a company of Fox’s size because the gatekeepers to the information — MVPDs and SVOD platforms — are not inclined to share information.

“We have data at our fingertips that we never used to have in the TV and content business,” Freer said. “But we still don’t know a lot because we don’t have traditional first-party data.”

Freer also emphasized that data cannot be seen as a panacea for TV’s advertising challenges. The industry needs to find more uniform standards to avoid the “apples and oranges” comparison of TV and digital audiences. He cited stats from Fox’s telecast of Game 5 of the World Series delivering 14 billion minutes of live viewing, 2.5 billion of which were commercial minutes. By Fox’s calculation it would take YouTube three months to deliver the same audience, or nearly four years on Facebook.

“There is this constant apples-and-oranges conversation. (Facebook COO) Sheryl Sandberg says there is a Super Bowl every day on Facebook, but what does that even mean? There’s not even a consistent measurement there,” he said. “We have to get better at how we compare those things. The industry has to get a little more accountable.”

The larger message, Freer said, is that data is only really valuable when it becomes an effective tool to address a shortcoming or opportunity.

“We look at data, particularly at the television company, much more from the standpoint of what problems are we trying to solve,” he said. “What we’ve lost sight of is that data is there to help us. It’s there to show us a path or different answers or even different questions to get to a place where we’re better. We as an industry have lost sight of what problem are we trying to solve.”

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