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Ops Open Data Vaults

5/29/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

Cable operators are beginning to crack open stockpiles of data that reveal how viewers use video on demand and digital video recorders, but some advertisers said they want more information that will hold networks and operators accountable for the spots they sell.

As evidenced on panels last week at the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau’s Cable Sales Management Conference in Chicago, one thing is clear: Major MSOs are committed to using the digital technology that they’ve spent billions to deploy to drive advertising revenue. They say this will allow advertisers accustomed to getting ratings reports based on a small sample of homes to get more comprehensive data that shows how many homes actually watch a program or commercial.

In the pursuit for performance-based advertising deals that would make programmers accountable for the spots they sell, the stakes for networks, MSOs and advertisers are huge. Operators want cable and broadcast networks to supply them with their best series for VOD platforms, but many programmers are resisting the move out of concern that their scheduled shows would take a ratings hit.

Operators and programmers are turning to both Nielsen Media Research and new firms such as Rentrak Corp. to track new-media viewing.

Nielsen detailed plans last week to add data from VOD and DVR viewing to its ratings reports next year. Nielsen executives are also working with Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable to collect not only information on VOD, but data that tracks how customers watch linear channels like ESPN or Discovery Channel.

Nielsen executives said the addition of data from VOD and DVR viewing will address some of the clients’ concerns.

“That’s really a major goal of this initiative, to assure recent TV programs, when they re-air on VOD, the programmer will in fact get appropriate credit for that audience,” said Nielsen general manager of national services Sara Erichson.

Beginning in the second quarter of 2006, Nielsen will add VOD, DVR and DVD-recorder views to ratings reports from its 8,500-home national sample. In the second phase of Nielsen’s rollout — in the fourth quarter of 2006 — it will release reports that break out the number of VOD views.

'VOD FLAGS’ NEEDED

Nielsen said it won’t be able to distinguish on-demand content from regular TV until programmers add “VOD flags” to their content.

Starcom MediaVest Group vice president Tim Hanlon said Nielsen still needs to do more.

“I think what Nielsen has offered is a small step forward, but what’s required are some giant leaps,” Hanlon, an industry expert on new media advertising, said. “And I’m getting concerned that other people are passing them by, and we’re finding other solutions that are more helpful to what we need to achieve.”

He cited VOD tracker Rentrak Corp. and digital-marketing firm Atlas Solutions as companies that are already supplying better data on how VOD subscribers watch TV than Nielsen.

In a TV world in which advertisers commit several billion dollars during the upfront market for spots on shows that may bomb in the ratings a year later, Hanlon said advertisers need performance-based data in order to ensure accountability, similar to the model that has developed for Internet advertising.

That’s a sentiment that was echoed by industry players that spoke at the CAB conference last week in Chicago.

OMD U.S. director of strategic marketing David DeSocio told CAB that advertisers need a “level of accountability. How do I know it [the spot] got there?”

With more and more programmers distributing content via broadband Web sites, mobile phones and other platforms, some advertisers said they want a system that would allow buyers to easily place and track the performance of ads on any platform.

“We need to have much more active data flow about how people are watching and consuming than we do today, and I would argue that the model might be like online ad networks like DoubleClick and Atlas … where the advertiser effectively puts up and takes away the ads based on performance, and then strike the individual business deals where necessary,” Hanlon said.

MSOS GATHER DATA

Digital set-tops allow operators to track every click of the remote, and compile reports on both VOD and regular linear TV viewing, but to date, the MSOs have kept most of that information to themselves. Comcast, Cablevision Systems Corp., Insight Communications Co. and Charter Communications Inc. have begun supplying VOD data to Rentrak, which plans to compile monthly reports.

Charter Communications Inc. senior vice president of advertising sales and marketing Jim Heneghan said operators need an objective third party to compile data from digital set-tops.

“We own the data, and we can aggregate the data, but no agency is going to allow me to come in and just present my data. We need a partner, and if it is going to be the currency, Nielsen does have a brand that is quite well known in the agency community,” Heneghan said.

Comcast is already supplying data that track how its digital-cable subscribers in Philadelphia watch both linear programming and VOD shows — an effort that began within the last two months, Erichson said.

Erichson said Nielsen is also in the “early stages” of working with Time Warner Cable to collect data from subscriber homes, but MSO spokesman Keith Coccoza said the operator hasn’t yet begun supplying numbers to Nielsen.

The VOD and DVR data that Nielsen will add to its regular ratings reports next year will also contain viewing information from Time Warner’s “Start Over” time-shifted programming project, Erichson added.

Start Over would allow Time Warner customers with digital set-tops who miss the beginning of primetime shows to start the program from the beginning. The MSO plans to begin trialing Start Over on its Columbia, S.C., system. Cable operators are also hoping to use more detailed ratings information to help them sell ads for VOD platforms, in addition to offering media buyers spots that target specific neighborhoods.

In Philadelphia, Comcast runs 30-second cross-channel spots for advertisers such as General Motors Corp., which prompt viewers to hit a button on their remote to view long-form ads from the advertisers.

NAME, ADDRESS PLEASE

Such data collection may lead to debate over privacy issues, as some advertisers want the names of customers that opt in to viewing their VOD ads.

“I also want the name and address of that household,” Mindshare director of new business Kathy McCauley said at the CAB Sales Management conference.

While MSOs are focused on using VOD ads as a weapon against local broadcasters, Hanlon maintains that operators are “missing the big picture,” and should instead turn their attention to working with national cable networks to sell advertisers national spots that include interactive and VOD elements that could be accessed from linear, on-demand and DVR platforms.

“The operator gets paid for the disk space, the transmission of the video, the click streams,” said Hanlon. “Wrap that up, put a margin on it and give that to the national programmer to sell as part of their offering. The national programmer wins, the operator wins and, more importantly, the advertiser does.”

September