The only thing more complicated than trying to count viewers as they consume content on multiple digital devices might be trying to keep track of financial developments at measurement company comScore. When comScore, best known for tracking online users, in January 2016 acquired Rentrak — which used set-top box data to measure video-on-demand playback — it appeared to be forming a competitor to Nielsen, which dominates the TV ratings business.
But two months later, comScore disclosed that accounting issues had turned up in its financial statements. It would then go through a painstaking re-audit; a number of top executives, including two CEOs — co-founder Gian Fulgoni and Serge Matta — would in time leave the company. Analysts said comScore appeared too distracted, new product development slowed and, at the end of last year, there was a round of layoffs.
Activist shareholder Starboard Value LP helped comScore refinance in January, providing the company with $150 million in new cash. And the re-audit is expected to end soon, with the company saying it will release restated financial results by the end of March.
With all of that behind it, will comScore be able to compete with Nielsen, to give networks, media buyers and advertisers the advanced metrics they need to measure the new ways viewers are consuming content?
Bill Livek, executive vice chairman and president at comScore, said he believes it will, saying pointedly that comScore is back.
And Laura Martin, analyst at Needham & Co., expects comScore to be able to compete once its financials are squared away.
“Brands really want a second choice,” she said. “Content [owners] really want a second choice. They do not want to be monopolistically dependent on Nielsen.” And they’re willing to spend to support comScore, because if they don’t, “Nielsen raises its price, so you wind up paying more anyway.”
Nielsen declined to comment on comScore. But for the past few years, it has been working on its Total Audience approach to measurement.
Jessica Hogue, senior vice president of product leadership at Nielsen, said the measurement giant’s framework has been designed to be flexible and to support the different business models its clients could employ.
At times, there has been resistance to both Nielsen’s approach and the results that came from it. But Hogue said Nielsen has been working closely with clients to meet their measurement needs.
“We’ve seen a tremendous amount of progress, not just in our ability to get the capability to market, but in the different ways clients have been able to take advantage of it,” she said.
Hogue pointed to the way ESPN has used components of Nielsen’s Total Audience system to measure its live audience. She also noted that Nielsen worked with Turner to leverage video-on-demand ratings that go beyond the confines of a seven-day window. A number of clients have also taken advantage of new out-of-home audience measurement.
Last year, Nielsen extended its Digital and TV Ratings, which measure linear TV viewed on a digital screen; the extension would bring in platforms such as YouTube Live and Hulu. This year, the market is focused on connected TV and over-the-top viewing. “It’s already part of our program in the total audience framework,” so marketers will be able to leverage that measurement and continue to grow that marketplace, Hogue said.
“We’ll add features that also allow our clients to make business decisions in new and different ways,” she said.
Nielsen and comScore come at the issues taking different approaches.
“I would say that historically, which is their starting point, comScore looks at the world much more granularly from the set-top box data — which they would call census-based — versus panel-based, which is where Nielsen comes from. That’s a big difference,” Martin said.
In an interview, Livek spoke with Multichannel News about where his company is and where it’s headed. An edited transcript follows.
MCN:comScore has been in the news a lot for all the wrong reasons. At this point, do you guys have the financial resources and stability to really get in there and compete in this increasingly complex measurement space?
Bill Livek: comScore’s back.
MCN:Back from where?
BL: comScore’s back. We had what I believe is a financial hiccup of doing a re-audit. And we announced that by the end of March we will be issuing these audited financials.
While that was going on, we’ve been refocused on our cross-platform efforts. And that’s in digital and TV and, of course, the movie business. We’re in a phenomenal business at the right time.
The industry is consolidating. You have Disney acquiring [assets of 21st Century] Fox; you have AT&T acquiring Time Warner. Embodied in the DNA of those big deals are movie studios, TV networks and digital distribution that goes direct to the consumer.
And at comScore, we’re measuring how people are being entertained and informed across all the different platforms.
MCN: Doesn’t consolidation mean you have fewer, bigger clients and doesn’t that give them more leverage over you?
BL: I think it’s a great thing for comScore that you have more incentive for companies to have great measurement and figure out a way to attract the right consumers, whether it’s a piece of content being released on the big screen at the movie theater, or whether it’s being released on your television set and then very quickly going on your digital device or on your digital device at the same time that it’s going to your TV set.
The epicenter of all these big mergers are companies that have information about their consumer, but comScore plays in the center about understanding how the consumer is interacting on all these different platforms.
And that’s why we’ve got a great business. We’re positioned quite well and we’re excited about what we do every day here.
MCN: The company has gone through a couple of CEOs over the past couple years. Who will be running the company long-term?
BL: The board has hired a search company and it’s evaluating internal and external candidates.
MCN: What can comScore do better than anybody else in the measurement world?
BL: Embodied in comScore’s DNA, it’s really interesting: We have digital in our roots, TV measurement in our roots and a love for movie measurement in our roots. And because of that, and because, literally, all entertainment now is digital, we think that we have a leg up on anyone.
We’re in a great place measuring the consumer wherever they’re entertained and informed, in any and every platform.
MCN: How do you do that?
BL: We do it in a lot of ways. Some of the ways we do it are with our census tags, where owners of content embed the comScore tag into their content. We call that our census tag. We have our media metrics panel and we also are pulling back video-on-demand from literally every set-top box in the United States that is video-on-demand-enabled and we also, at the same time, are pulling back linear television.
So, the combination of census-like currency and massive and passive information creates a great environment to measure consumers.
MCN: You’ve always gotten a ton of data from set-top boxes. Are you also getting data from connected TV?
BL: We can’t comment on what we’re doing with connected TVs, but connected TVs are a piece of the ecosystem, an important piece of where the future is going.There’s a lot of viewing via streaming and over-the-top of all types and we’re getting a great deal of that.
MCN: What part does your Total Home Panel play?
BL: Our Total Home Panel is a look at the future. We’re getting a lot of learnings from the Total Home Panel. From a strategy standpoint long-term, we’re evaluating it. But we’ve learned a great deal about the connected home, about all the different devices that consumers are using.
MCN: Are you guys able to measure the streamers? Can you tell me how many people are watching a particular program on Netflix, for example?
BL: Our point of view is if it’s not ad-supported, it’s not on the top of our priority list. Now our Total Home Panel gives us an idea of understanding how an advertiser can reach a viewer who is principally a Netflix viewer, and how they can reach them on a lot of the other digital platforms that are available.
MCN: TV viewing is measured one way and online video another. What will comScore do to create an apples-to-apples comparison? Will media buyers be able to buy both with a single metric?
BL: First off, we don’t think that media buyers will be using a single metric in the future. We believe they’re going to be using a basket of currencies, primarily two.
It also depends on where the ad load is. If the ad load is principally on digital, we’ll be seeing digital impressions. If it’s on TV, it will be a television impression, quarter-hour average minute or exact commercial rating. And one of the benefits that we have with what we do is to be able to look at that viewer and how they’re using television across all those platforms.
But our goal is to super-serve the media owners and super-serve the advertisers who are trying to reach a highly targeted consumer. And the good news about all these big data sources is that we can go beyond an age and gender definition of the consumer. And you have advertisers who are on a relentless quest of understanding whether those commercials resulted in some motivation to want to buy a product or, in fact, buy a product.
And the definition of a consumer is complicated. That’s why at comScore we really invented the whole idea of having these advanced demographics, like the cars that we drive, our intent to purchase, products that we buy in grocery stores. And how we vote, whether we are a persuadable voter or a hardened individual for one or the other party.
MCN: You’re talking about the shift to audience buying. Are you guys enabling media owners trying to shift away from Nielsen age/sex demographics to audience targeting?
BL: We’re the leader in it. We’re proud to be a participant in OpenAP with the networks who are involved, because they see the big value in comScore’s advanced targets.
MCN: How’s the relationship with OpenAP?
BL: Our relationship is very deep and wide with the networks that are participating in it.
MCN: Are you guys involved in attribution, measuring how much media advertising contributes to product sales?
BL: The answer is yes. We have a lot of advertisers who are trying to figure out, did the ad schedule actually result in moving product? You have a mega-trend out there and I think the epicenter of it is around 3G Capital and Kraft Heinz. Their premise is that if the ads, for them to have value, they have to see that it motivated a consumer to go and buy the brand or in fact buy the brand.
So there is a growing trend of advertisers who want to do that type of work, knowing that the ad schedules did in fact work. And when you have big data sets like we have at comScore, it’s an important ingredient in terms of trying to figure that out.
MCN: People see you competing with Nielsen. Do you see spaces where Nielsen is vulnerable?
BL: When we wake up in the morning we don’t even think about the competitive landscape. We think about our customer and how their business is evolving. And if this were a hockey game, we would want to anticipate where the puck’s going, and that’s where we put our energies.
We think we’ve built a great business here. And we trust that our customers see that also.
MCN: We were surprised to see the announcement by Sinclair Broadcast Group that they were back in the local measurement business with Nielsen. Does that say anything about their confidence in comScore and its products?
BL: You would have to ask Sinclair on that. We have a great relationship with Sinclair. Call it a fantastic relationship. And we work with all of their television stations across all of their markets and it’s just a great relationship. We would never comment on their right to buy anyone else.
MCN: comScore offered free viewability measurement via validated Campaign Essentials (vCE). Did a lot of clients take that offer?
BL: We’re doing a lot of really interesting work in that space and we plan on having a customer day in the future here so we can share a lot of the specifics. But it’s certainly a growing trend that advertisers want to make sure that their ads are being seen in a safe environment, particularly in this day and age in 2018.
MCN: Any other recent product launches gaining traction?
BL: All of our products are gaining different degrees of traction, whether it’s in local, digital or network or cross-platform. This is an evolving business. We’re in a dynamic cross-platform world — literally, it’s a dynamic cross-platform world. And our products will continue to evolve as the consumer’s evolving.
Who would have thought the consumer would be viewing and being entertained on all these different platforms just a few years ago? It’s a great environment, a great time to be a measurement company.
MCN: What’s in the pipeline?
BL: Stay tuned for our cross-platform offerings. We’re in a private release and you’ll be hearing more about those in the future.
MCN: Are they new and different?
BL: We haven’t been talking a lot about what we’re doing in that space, but while we’ve been quiet we’ve been working on a variety of new offerings. And you’ll be hearing more about it in the near term. There will be: You can’t have a wine before it’s time. It’s the same with products.
MCN: Any cool new ways to count viewers on every platform?
BL: A big piece of this is making sure you’re pulling back all the right big databases. You’re not going to have them all, but you’re going to have enough of them that you can statistically correct for the ones that you don’t have.
So we live in a world that’s never been; the dream of being more exact has never been more of a reality. But it gets increasingly complex every month and the thing that our customers keep coming back to us, they know we have the experience in digital and TV and movie measurement and we’re a constantly evolving business in the space of how the consumer’s entertained across all these platforms.
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Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.