NBCUniversal is on a quest to find something often believed elusive: a new system of measuring TV audiences who don’t always use traditional television to watch their favorite shows. Rather than go it alone, the company is bringing together a group of allies.
Target, Ford Motor, Citigroup, Pfizer, L’Oreal, Volkswagen and Wayfair are among the entities that have joined a new forum that NBCU expects to brief regularly as it explores new measurement technologies and concepts from more than 80 different companies. The probe is part of a bid to spur the broader media and advertising sector to consider new ways of counting audiences who are just as likely to stream “Law & Order: SVU” and “Saturday Night Live” as they are to watch it in linear fashion.
“Measurement is a team sport and has always been a team sport,” says Kelly Abcarian, executive vice president of measurement and impact at NBCU’s advertising and partnerships unit, in an interview. Indeed, the last time the industry changed the way it measured TV audiences — in 2006 and 2007 — it required work by several media companies; media buyers; and trade groups, and still took more than a year to accomplish.
Getting industry support for the task is critical for the Comcast-backed media conglomerate. While many advertisers agree they need new tools to determine who watches the commercials they buy from NBCU, WarnerMedia, Disney and others, they are wary of a new system that is put together by a seller that has a vested interest in getting top dollar from commercial inventory. Madison Avenue is already skeptical of the advertising it purchases from digital entities like Facebook and Google, who don’t have a lot of third-party vetting of the ad results they discuss with sponsors.
“We have no interest in building a walled garden, definitely not in measurement,” says Abcarian.
NBCU’s new “Measurement Innovation Forum” also includes top Madison Avenue media-buying firms like WPP’s GroupM; Interpublic Group’s Magna; and Omnicom Group’s OMD as well as trade groups like the Association of National Advertisers; the Advertising Research Foundation; and the American Association of Advertising Agencies. Some ad agencies, like Dentsu’s 360i and independents Wieden + Kennedy and Giant Spoon are also on board.
NBCUniversal has been one of the most vocal media entities as the industry’s traditional arbiter, Nielsen, has come under scrutiny. In September, accreditation for Nielsen’s national and local ratings services was suspended by the Media Rating Council, an industry organization that works to ensure measurement organizations are held to specific standards. The move followed months of jousting between Nielsen and the networks, who believe Nielsen’s technology has not kept pace with consumer habits. In a letter issued in September, Nielsen CEO David Kenny said the company understands “that we need to move faster in advancing our measurement because the audience itself is moving faster.”
The MRC will join NBCU’s forum as an observer, a move that may mollify some large and influential advertisers who crave an independent accounting of viewership. Procter & Gamble, a prominent supporter of TV networks, has said it expects any new measurement standard to be backed by the MRC.
Other media companies have started efforts as well. ViacomCBS has teamed up with the data company VideoAmp to guarantee linear media transactions against age and gender demographics, and to back delivery of commercials to specific segments of audience.
NBCU plans to let forum members know about talks it has been holding with dozens of measurement vendors as part of a request for proposals it has already issued. NBCU initially expected its discussions to wrap last month, but has gotten inquiries from dozens of other companies, says Abacarian. Now, NBCU hopes to “understand who the players are, evaluate their needs, bring that understanding back to the Forum and determine how to scale this across the industry,” she says, adding: “We hope to start testing new options as early as January 2022.”
NBCU will have an opportunity to measure some of TV’s biggest audiences in new ways early next year. In a rare confluence, the company will telecast both the Winter Olympics and Super Bowl LVI within days of each other, and expects to use the two big events to examine non-traditional kinds of audience counts and responses.