With no third-party accredited measurement, this year’s upfront season is a testing bonanza

But Nielsen is still ruler of the measurement roost—for now.
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Francis Scialabba

6 min read

After two years of virtual upfront presentations, the dimly lit cocktail hours, mainstage events, and in-person deal-making meetings are back, meaning that this year’s NewFronts and upfront season are (mostly) back to normal.

When it comes to the measurement relied upon during negotiations, though, this year will be anything but.

For the first time in recent memory, networks, platforms, and ad buyers are heading into negotiations with no audience measurement option that is officially accredited by a third party. Nielsen, long the TV industry’s primary audience yardstick that measures viewership by age and gender based on its household panel data, lost official third-party accreditation of its TV products last fall. A completed audit from the third-party Media Rating Council isn’t expected until well after negotiations are finalized. Meanwhile, rival measurement firms Comscore and iSpot, which use big data sets to measure audiences, aren’t much closer to accreditation.

That means it’ll be an upfront season like none other, as TV networks like NBCUniversal, WarnerMedia, and Paramount head into negotiations armed with various measurement tests aimed at giving advertisers alternatives to choose from. But don’t expect a free-for-all: this year’s upfront is all about testing, testing, and more testing, as the entire industry gets comfortable with a new measurement reality.

“The urgency and the appetite is one that’s being equally felt on both the sell and buy side, and that makes for a very interesting marketplace,” said Sean Cunningham, president and CEO of the Video Advertising Bureau, an industry group that has been critical of Nielsen and an advocate for alternate measurement. “I think that we’ve very quickly gone to multiplicity as an assumed approach.”

Objects in motion

For buyers, “the law of inertia does apply” during this season, said Kelly Metz, the managing director of advanced TV activation at Omnicom Media Group. After years of promises from networks and from measurement companies about getting more precise information about the audiences who see ads, there is finally tangible evidence of momentum toward other currencies that deals could hinge on.

“The thing about this year versus any other year is that many objects were set in motion versus just talking about it—things are actually getting done,” Metz told Marketing Brew. “I have had more conversations with network partners about the piping, the actual infrastructure that makes this happen—that piping of the data into their forecasting systems—than I think has ever happened before.”

Some of those networks include WarnerMedia, which is working on tests with iSpot, Comscore, and VideoAmp to measure audience reach and frequency using those companies’ data sets. ViacomCBS is testing VideoAmp’s cross-platform age and gender measurement, and NBCUniversal is working with iSpot to measure reach and  impressions using smart TV data.

More options doesn’t mean advertisers are jumping at every chance to measure audiences differently. Buyers are approaching cautiously. Omnicom’s Metz “wouldn’t let a client move in an alternate currency right now unless there was a specific business reason to do so,” she told Marketing Brew, and for now only expects small amounts booked on alternate currencies on a campaign basis.

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“The practical reality is it takes a long time for people to change and technology to change and to get our ducks in a row, and to make sure that the human aspect and the technology aspect align,” Metz said.

Plus, old habits—and measurement infrastructure—die hard, and by some measures, Nielsen still comes out on top. Omnicom Media Group distributed an infographic to clients highlighting that Nielsen remains the only currency provider offered by all five of the major networks: NBCUniversal, Disney, Paramount, Discovery, and WarnerMedia. VideoAmp, Samba, iSpot, Comscore, and other measurement companies are all potential alternatives, but aren’t as widely used as Nielsen.

Moving on

But it’s undeniable that there is movement away from traditional demographic-based audience measurement and toward more precise audience measurement, and that means streaming services presenting during this week’s NewFronts see the embrace of alternative measurements as an additional opportunity to attract investment.

“What we’ve heard from our brand and agency partners is that this is the year to test and learn,” Kristina Shepard, Roku’s head of agency partnerships and national brand team lead, told Marketing Brew. “They want to use those partners, all of the many options that exist today for measurement, test and learn, do some AB testing, and then understand who they should be doubling down on as an alternative currency partner next year.”

And while it’s anybody’s guess as to which measurement options will eventually pull ahead, there is room for multiple winners. Deals “that just use one data source with no consideration for a second data source—I think that’s going to be the shortest list in the marketplace,” Cunningham said.

Roku and other streamers are, like the networks, positioning themselves as measurement-agnostic, but with pipes that allow for more precise measurement and targeting using deterministic data, Shepard said. The movement toward alternative currencies, she said, “enables an upfront in which brands and agencies are planning based on high-value audiences and going beyond just age and gender.”

The reality, for now, is that no one can require third-party accreditation for their measurement or currency of choice, Metz said, but the new options, however incomplete, point the industry toward a better-measured future—as long as everyone sticks the landing.

“Where every other digital medium is becoming less addressable because of identity fragmentation and challenges with identity, TV is becoming more addressable,” Metz said. “We’re in a really good spot as an industry; we just need to get our act together on the measurement side.”

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