Digital and TV comparisons are 'economics of the madhouse'

Rosie Baker
By Rosie Baker | 8 September 2016

“It's the economics of the madhouse,” effused Mark Brandon, MCN's chief data officer this week, talking about the inflated digital numbers being touted around the market as genuine comparisons for television metrics.

He was speaking on a panel at this week's ASTRA  conference in Sydney, tackling the complex world of measurement across TV and digital and touching on the many flaws in current terminology being used across the market.

Brandon was scathing in his assessment of Facebook and YouTube's attempts to 'clothe' themselves in television terminology and muddy the waters.

"Facebook is just using TV spiel. Turning TV spiel back on itself and [TV] has to wake up and fight back and challenge the nonsensical statements these people [digital players such as Facebook and Google] are making. There's value in what they do, of course there is … [but] to some extent it shows a certain degree of desperation. I think YouTube is in a far less advantageous position in terms of world domination [than Facebook] but let's fight them on our turf. If we do that, we'll win,” he said in a rallying cry to the TV industry.

“We have to step back – you'd be crazy to throw out the window the key competitive advantage TV has in trading terms – it's third party accredited and robust. It would be fair to say on the digital side we're in more of a wild wild west environment and reducing the entropy on that side of the equation is very difficult. We're all looking for that unifying metric but before we go headlong into a race to go digital in metric terms we should pause and reflect that there's nothing actually broken in what my colleague Doug [OzTAM] does in this market. We need to proceed relatively carefully.”

Streams are not people

The goal for everyone is to achieve a single currency of measurement whereby buyers and sellers use the same metrics to provide a comparable picture. And while that single cross-platform measurement is getting closer it still eludes the industry - with one of the major problems being that "a lot of players are building their own thing and marking their own homework", said Doug Peiffer, CEO of OzTam, which measures TV audiences in Australia.

The overall journey is towards being able to measure and compare audiences and time spent. Monique Perry, who heads up the media business at Nielsen, says digital measurement metrics such as impressions and hits are "irrelevant".

“We're working towards a daily, overnight, audience metric. … we need to be able to report daily audience for online video – this monthly number that we release 27 days after the end of the month is not very digital, if you like. So we do need daily audience. But, we need to do a lot of work and we take a lot of responsibility locally [and Nielsen globally] to demystify these metrics," said Perry.

“Streams is not people. You can't compare an average quarter hour on TV to a total cumulative monthly online figure. The metrics I'm releasing are cumulated over a month while [OzTam's] are average audiences for a TV programme. We need to do some work to get some comparability – whether that is TV metrics coming up to digital, or us coming down the the granular metric TV has. We need to understand the differences and work towards like-for-like metrics,” she said.

However, Perry added that the Australian market is the most sophisticated in the world and was the first market to unify behind one digital system.

OzTAM's Peiffer too, unsurprisingly, advised caution when it comes to the way Facebook slices and dices television measurements data, citing a research project it conducted in April with Nielsen that showed Facebook was "grasping at a snapshot" of TV data.

Don't trust the numbers

He pointed out some of the flaws around digital numbers being compared in TV terms using the example of figures reported in the US by Yahoo of the first live-streamed NFL game. It was touted at around 15 million viewers, but when the total minutes was calculated it's closer to 2 million.

Another local market example, which he didn't name, was a programme aired on Facebook by a broadcaster claiming 2 million viewers. But applying a little maths, Peiffer worked out the viewer number was closer to 6,000 or 7,000 if a TV definition of a viewer is used.

“Now, those [streams] aren’t viewers – those are views. I know that 1.4 million of the 2 million watched it for less than three seconds, it might have started with autoplay but people flicked through. On Facebook, the video starts so it's counted as an impression," he explained.

“Everyone likes a big number. If I put out a number that says 2 million streams but 1,000 average audience – you’re not going to like the 1,000. But it's about time – what are the total minutes for that piece of content and divide it by the duration and then it will look like TV and then you can compare. People make bad decisions [based on bad numbers] because they think that's going to kill broadcast,” he said.

Perry, while candid that digital measurement is by no means perfect, and openly referencing recent significant errors it has made in digital measurement of YouTube's numbers, defended digital's progress.

“One of the benefits of digital is that it changes so rapidly. So while I guess I am the wild west of measurement if you like, our ability to adapt and innovate is strong. It's exciting to watch digital measurement innovate and it's doing a good job given the scope of change.”

Sleeping while the barbarians are at the gate

Brandon, whose background is in digital not TV, is not the defender of traditional channels, he says. But he proffered that some of the “gloss” is coming off digital numbers and marketers “finally, at long last, praise the lord, are clocking this".

"All you have to do is make an informed decision. If you're informed decision takes you down a path to spend $10 milion on Snapchat only - fine - just make sure it's informed and conversely look at old-fashioned media and consider them in the light of reality,” he said.

“The truth is that we've got to get back to the point of measuring things in an independent and robust fashion and then think about the inter-comparability because until you do that it's utter nonsense. It's the economics of the madhouse. We're in a situation where the gloss is coming off the sales pitches, but it's fair to say the industry has slept while the barbarians are at the gate.”

Have something to say on this? Share your views in the comments section below. Or if you have a news story or tip-off, drop me a line at rosiebaker@yaffa.com.au

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