Unifying the Language of TV: A Problem We Can All Agree On

Dâna Barakat, VP, Marketing and Communications at New York Interconnect
Dâna Barakat, VP, Marketing and Communications at New York Interconnect (Image credit: New York Interconnect)

The most dramatic evolution we’ve seen throughout TV advertising’s 80 years of existence is widely argued to have occurred in the last 10 years. From the proliferation of live streaming and OTT, it seems like nothing is what it used to be. Content can be viewed everywhere, at any time, on any platform, using incredibly advanced technology. The addition of these new content viewing opportunities brings powerful new opportunities to the advertising industry.

As we focus on how to deliver seamless customer experiences with the integration of new platforms, we must also integrate consistency in the language we use to describe them—something I don’t believe we discuss nearly enough. Admittedly, it’s not a small or simple topic to tackle.

I recently sat down in a meeting to discuss revised terminology for how we talk about the ever-broadening opportunity within the TV space. Linear, cable, digital, OTT, VOD, streaming, addressable, connected—where do each of these terms (and others) fit in today’s industry lexicon? And are they all entirely necessary? I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by a sense of déjà vu. How many times had I participated in similar conversations over the past few years? And as an industry, are we any closer to achieving a common language than when these conversations first started?

The simple fact is that if you ask 10 people in the ad industry to talk about current platforms and opportunities in the TV space, you’ll hear people pulling from 10 different glossaries. Let’s take a look at why that is—and what it ultimately means for the industry.

Refining Language Amid Rapid Change

The proliferation of digital hardware and software has dramatically altered people’s TV viewing patterns over the past decade, thereby upending what was once a fairly well-established and predictable advertising model for brands. As with any technological leap, the language we’ve used to describe new opportunities and viewing behaviors in TV has evolved in an uncontrolled environment, and the consequent confusion and inconsistency can prove frustrating. In a given conversation, two industry players might use “streaming,” “OTT” and “VOD” interchangeably to describe reaching audiences in their new time-shifted viewing behaviors, but there are often nuances among these terms that will ultimately influence a given media buy. Likewise, where does “digital” fit in today’s TV industry? Isn’t everything—even linear—inherently “digital” these days?

When the ad industry dives down this linguistic rabbit hole, conversations usually arrive at one logical conclusion: It’s the audience that matters, not the technology itself. So why are we troubling ourselves about semantics at all? Isn’t it all just “TV” in the end? Can’t we just buy audiences and stop worrying about the technological specifics of how they’re being reached?

A return to simplicity such as this is undoubtedly appealing, but we mustn’t go overboard all at once. Given the newness and continued evolution of TV advertising opportunities, we’re still in a very much needed education phase in which advertisers must come to understand—and to trust—how new viewing behaviors and their related advertising modalities fit into their broader media mixes. Understanding the nuances across the various manifestations of TV advertising today can help brands and their agencies better understand how existing targeting and attribution models need to evolve to take full advantage of the new opportunities within the TV space. By obscuring how various platforms and technologies fit within the greater whole, we obscure the innovation that has taken us so far in so short a time.

Overcoming Confusion to Continue Innovating

Within the TV space exists many players, with many products—and those products are evolving constantly. As an industry, we all agree that the nuance of how advertisers are reaching audiences on TV is important, but achieving consensus in terminology, particularly as it continues to move beneath us, has thus far proven impossible. But it’s an initiative we must continue in earnest.

In many cases, it’s likely that progress will start within the walls of TV’s biggest organizations and radiate outward.

At New York Interconnect, a joint venture between the three largest TV providers in the NY market (Altice USA, Charter and Comcast), we offer all of our capabilities under one holistic platform, called Audience One. We designed this concept in early 2018 with a mission to communicate to clients that targeting audiences wherever (and whenever) they were watching was more important than focusing on how we were reaching them. It was a fairly new position then, but it has become more and more standard within our industry. 

I recently asked Lisa Ahern, VP, Product Marketing at Comcast’s Effectv, about the challenge of language within the TV space, and she noted that it’s one her organization is actively tackling. “We need to start speaking about TV understanding how the medium has evolved to meet viewers’ needs,” she told me. “People now watch TV on their own terms, and viewing is not limited to the largest screen in the house at a fixed hour. To that end, Effectv will retire the word ‘linear’ in our marketing materials, using ‘TV’ instead. Other MVPDs have also voiced similar interest in simplifying this language across the ecosystem.”

Lisa also noted that there’s a lot of confusion over various acronyms and descriptions of digital TV in the market today. “Many people don’t understand the difference between over-the-top (OTT), TV Everywhere (TVE), connected TV (CTV) or set-top box video on demand (STB VOD),” she told me. “At Effectv, we bundle these distribution platforms together as Effectv Streaming, to enable advertisers to reach audiences wherever, whenever, and however they choose to watch TV and premium video content, across screens and devices. We want them to focus less on the acronyms and more on the incremental reach that digital adds to a TV campaign.”

Lisa noted that it would be helpful for organizations like IAB and VAB to help drive toward a standard language for the TV industry by surveying members about their current naming conventions and their ideas on unifying our terminology, and then developing recommendations based on the survey results.

Danielle DeLauro, executive VP at VAB, recognizes the role organizations like hers can play in generating awareness and support for a universal glossary through their deep and trusted connections with buyers, sellers and measurement providers. As she puts it, “As the walls between linear and OTT and digital fall and the industry pushes further towards data-driven solutions, a common language will become a necessity to conduct business efficiently. We recognize the need for clarity on common terms and concepts, and so this year we’ve begun developing glossary content to help marketers successfully navigate this change.”

The current fractured vernacular of our industry is a symptom of the vast innovation that has taken place—and continues to take place—within TV advertising. Everyone in the TV advertising industry recognizes the challenges associated with our inconsistent, constantly changing array of terminology, and we want to get to the other side of this challenge as soon as possible. It’s going to take time, but it seems a decade of conversations is finally starting to translate into action. 

New York Interconnect is a joint venture among Altice USA, Charter Communications, and Comcast that connects brands to over 20 million consumers in the nation’s No. 1 market.

Dâna Barakat

Dâna Barakat is VP of marketing and communications at New York Interconnect