Mining for TV Gold With Big Data Tools

While Nielsen ratings remain the central currency for measuring TV audiences, the process of gathering second-by-second data from millions of set-top boxes has rapidly become an alternative option that can help programmers and their advertisers learn much more about their viewers — and target them.

There’s no shortage of companies that have access to this massive flow of raw data and sift through it all to find these valuable nuggets of information, among them FourthWall Media, AT&T’s AdWorks unit and Rentrak.

Going beyond sex and age demographics, set-top data can dive several layers deeper to help ad buyers target their products more precisely and bring a digital-style approach to TV advertising.

Among this group, FourthWall collects box data from about 2.1 million homes (and roughly 4 million set-top boxes) across 90 demographic market areas.

As with other companies that collect such information, it’s all kept anonymous, but Fourth- Wall does use unique household identifiers to provide a full picture of how those homes change over time. With that data in hand, it is then free to layer it with demographic information from sources such as Acxiom. The company’s information is also used by outfits such as AOL’s, a unit that specializes in automated programmatic advertising online and, increasingly, for TV, and Starcom Mediavest, which taps in to make smarter media buys.

“We help a lot of companies facilitate their particular services,” Bill Feininger, president of FourthWall’s MassiveData division, said.

Feininger said he views FourthWall as both complementary and competitive to Nielsen, where he was previously employed for about 16 years. “We don’t build products that are measured products that compete with them. But on the other hand, we certainly have the data that could be used for that purpose.”

FourthWall also has the ability to collect similar data from mobile devices, which will grow in importance as TV Everywhere and other over-the-top services continue to attract eyeballs.

FourthWall’s “plumbing” has the ability to do that kind of collection. “We don’t implement that for ourselves and collect [that data], but the pieces are in place for our partners that license that technology,” Feininger said.

Rentrak, meanwhile, has a movie business that measures every time a movie ticket is sold in real time on a census basus. That information helps studios plan and shift their TV and digital media strategies practically on the fly. At the behest of programmers, it followed that years ago by measuring set-top box data as it became clear that video-on-demand would become an important extension of movie consumption. It went even further as on-demand viewing of TV shows became popular.

Rentrak now gathers information from 115 million TV sets, and, out of those VOD homes with a return path, is also measuring a subset of about 30 million, taking a look at live TV, DVR and VOD viewing, said vice chairman and CEO Bill Livek.

That kind of information enables Rentrak to precisely define who’s watching a TV show and who might also be BMW or Audi owner, and consumers “who have a propensity to buy brands when it comes to the products inside a grocery store,” Livek said.

Tapping big databases against TV viewing “helps the ad agencies and the brands become more efficient,” Livek said.

Rentrak, like FourthWall, is also keeping tabs on TV viewing on mobile devices.

“It’s still a tiny piece of the puzzle,” Livek said, noting that Rentrak is presently looking at that kind of data on a proprietary basis, “but soon it will be syndicated.”

In a similar vein, AT&T AdWorks is helping its partners tap set-top box data, poring through data generated from more than 16 million boxes across the U-verse TV universe.

There’s been a “big shift” as advertisers become increasingly interested in using digital- style methods that bring more accountability to TV advertising and are far more effective than traditional linear TV buys, Maria Mandel Dunsche, vice president of marketing at AT&T AdWorks, said.

Interest in those models is now attracting “some serious dollars,” she said, noting that the process is enabling a “digital currency to move to the TV” ecosystem.

“The set-top box can be a powerful [tool] to model potential new ways to reach a more targeted audience,” she said.

Looking ahead, AT&T Ad Works expects to expand its current TV-focused capabilities with mobile, a move that could help the company target and measure advertising across platforms. AT&T expects to announce more details later this year.