It's Time to Get the Return-Path Data Together

The FCC’s proposal to open cable set-top boxes to competition has thrust them into the spotlight as relates to the cost they place upon consumers and the innovation that competition from non-MVPD providers could bring.

But they are also rising in importance because of another discussion that is of perhaps greater relevance to the industry. That is the role that STBs play not as content portals, but as providers of return-path data (RPD).

From their inception, set-tops have had the potential to supply second-by-second viewing data captured passively – providing a level of granular insight into viewing behavior that was not before possible. And while not all MVPDs have made their data available, the availability of this data set from those that did has transformed audience measurement and has begun to lay the framework for audience-based buying, improved ad ROI measurement, addressable advertising services and, ultimately, scalable cross-platform measurement.

More recently, the emergence of smart TVs provided an alternative to set-tops as a source of second-by-second viewing, with some significant differences.

Unlike STBs, smart TVs can tell when a television set is on or off. STBs know only when the box itself has been turned off, not the TV. Therefore the potential exists to record content as being viewed when a set has been turned off but the STB remains on. To counter this, STB data providers use cap and edit rules that enable them to determine for specific types of content after what period of uninterrupted “viewing” the data should be cut off.

Smart TVs can also capture all television usage, including SVOD and digital games, while STBs can only measure linear television or what is passing through the box.

Smart TVs can also capture over-the-air (OTA) households, which obviously STBs cannot. While it may be a small set of viewers who have broadband Internet access but still view TV OTA, it offers a view into these households.

But while Smart TVs indeed have certain advantages for audience measurement as compared to STBs, they have shortcomings as well.

First and foremost, no Smart TV manufacturer is fully representative of the entire U.S., so there is no national footprint. And while not all MVPDs provide their STB data and therefore are not fully representative of the U.S. either, there is a large enough supply of data available from those providing data to cover perhaps 40% to 50% of the country.

STBs provide another distinct advantage in that they usually are connected to most, if not all, the television sets in a household, while at this point there is typically only one smart TV per household that has been connected to the Internet. Therefore, full household viewing behavior in these households may go uncaptured.

These comparisons and contrasts have inevitably led to the debate over which data set is of greater value to broadcasters and advertisers – RPD from STBs or from smart TVs?

But the reality is that the differences between the two types of data clearly demonstrate that their greater value lies in being complementary data sets, rather than competitive, and efforts should be made to determine how we can best combine them for a much more comprehensive and valuable approach to audience measurement.

The challenge in doing so is not insignificant and also not without concerns. The primary among these is how do we combine these data sets and protect viewer data privacy?

What would need to be done is to find some way to aggregate all viewers who have explicitly opted in to provide data, and work to have their data anonymized so that there was no way in which a user could get back to any individual viewer’s PPI. 

As has been demonstrated before with integrated data sets, a third-party provider for aggregating the data in this manner would in all probability be the best way to go.

The need for second-by-second viewing data across the spectrum of television content and collected on a scaled nationally representative basis is critical to the advancement of vital industry initiatives ranging from audience based buying to greater understanding of ROI and development of effective cross-platform measurement of both content and ads.

Set-tops and smart TVs each provide important data sets for the advancement of these objectives, but clearly they can be more effective in doing so collectively than competitively.

CIMM, under its mission of advancing cross-platform measurement, is launching an initiative to identify potential partners to combine smart TV and STB data in a manner that would protect viewer privacy while complementing the strengths and weaknesses of both methods.

We believe that through this initiative, data from MVPDs' set-tops and smart TVs, as well as data from what other STBs might come along from new providers, will work in concert together, providing a much more complete picture of national television viewing and fulfilling the promise of advanced audience measurement.

Jane Clarke is CEO and managing director of the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement (CIMM).