Big Data Era Dawns for Advertising Dealmakers

Big Data ComScore Ratings
Marly Gallardo for Variety

Reliable ratings for cross-platform viewership are not quite ready for primetime this year, but industry experts expect the playing field to change dramatically by next year’s upfront.

The February merger of ComScore and Rentrak has spurred competition in a field long owned by Nielsen. Nielsen has made big strides in its efforts to better capture the 360-degree picture of television viewing, although wide release of its “total audience measurement” ratings are still some months away.

ComScore is focused on a big-data approach that is designed to allow users to parse audiences not just along age and gender lines but by a host of other categories. Those discrete groups include narrowly defined “purchaser targets” — long the dream of marketers looking to get the most bang for their ad spending.

The conundrum at present is that Nielsen and the enlarged ComScore use different methodologies that make for apples-to-oranges comparisons. But industry veterans expect there will be a process of sorting out how ComScore data from some 10 million-plus homes will be used side-by-side with Nielsen numbers and lead to big changes in 2017.

Jane Clarke, CEO and managing director of the TV and advertising industry-backed Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement, predicts that ComScore’s numbers will become the basis of some aspect of ad sales guarantees, probably in tandem with traditional Nielsen stats.

“All of the networks are starting to offer these overlays (of data sources) as well as starting to sell a certain amount of inventory against those targets,” Clarke says. “Now you’re seeing (marketers) buy based on Nielsen age and gender ratings and then get secondary guarantees. By 2017 you’ll really start to see a shift. I think it’s going to take a year for the industry to get used to all this new data.”

In the upfront context, the biggest challenge is advance forecasting of ratings for new shows, as required for setting ad guarantees months in advance of a program’s airdate. Nielsen numbers have been the currency of television for 60-plus years, but there’s a big challenge in projecting the number of likely new car buyers so far out, Clarke says.

David Poltrack, chief research officer for CBS Corp., agrees with Clarke.

“Last year, a lot of the pre-upfront conversation was about the new tools available to advertisers, but they were just introductory conversations and not really active,” Poltrack says. “This year, there is a lot more advanced dialogue and a lot more requests for targeting. … The process will still be based on the demo, but expect to see a lot more creative integration using new data and targeting.”

Better measurement means a strengthened economic foundation for the TV industry, which has been frustrated at the fact that a significant amount of viewing has gone unmeasured in recent years by the Nielsen yardstick. That’s more than an issue of bragging rights about popularity — it amounts to money left on the table for ad-supported networks.

Network researchers are also excited at the prospect of learning ever more detail about the discreet audiences that turn out for shows via VOD, streaming and DVRs.

“One of the key insights will be unduplicated reach across platforms to demonstrate the value and size of our true total audience from both a programming and advertising perspective,” says Lisa Heimann, ABC’s VP of multiplatform research.