Premium Predicament: What’s Being Measured Is as Important as Who Measures It

A butcher measures the meat on a scale.
(Image credit: DEBOVE SOPHIE/Getty Images)

The commercial viability of premium programming hangs in the balance as a debate rages not just over who measures viewers and how to count them, but what content is included.

The old Nielsen ratings told programmers and advertisers how many people were watching television shows. As the amount of video online grew, it was measured separately. 

Now, advertisers are looking for cross-screen measurement and a new can of worms has been opened. NBCUniversal is happy to let clients know the deduplicated reach and frequency of campaigns that run across NBC, USA Network and Peacock. (Ditto for The Walt Disney Co. with ABC, ESPN, Hulu and Disney Plus). Include user-generated content from the YouTubes and the TikToks of the world, or other forms of content that isn’t professionally created, though, and all bets are off.

“For an ad video currency to replace the dominant currency in use (Nielsen’s C3/C7); any solution that calculates all video impressions as being equal is a non-starter,” Sean Cunningham, CEO of VAB, the trade group that represents TV programmers and distributors, told Broadcasting+Cable. “Any marketer with sales-growth and brand-growth goals will minimally need impressions differentiated by platform type, device type, content length, ad length, date/time and professional vs. UGC [user generated] content. Undifferentiated impressions are fine for any marketer with undifferentiated sales- and brand-growth goals.”

Nielsen this week launches Nielsen One, which measures ads across screens. It is designed to enable advertisers not only to see how many people see their commercials, but to determine the reach, frequency and, ultimately, the effectiveness of campaigns.

At the same time, programmers announced that they are banding together to form a Joint Industry Committee to set standards for the measurement of what they call premium video. 

“What we want to ensure here is that the universe that these programmers] constitute is differentiated from other parts of the media ecosystem, and even the broader video ecosystem,” Krishan Bhatia, president and chief business officer for NBCUniversal Advertising, said. “And that's I think where we still have disagreements, quite frankly, including with Nielsen, who's taking an approach of the world is flat and we will measure all forms of video consumption, regardless of, you know, origin or quality standard or length.”

Bhatia said NBCU and other programmers believe “there's a significantly different consumer and marketer experience associated with premium video that all of the existing and presumably future members invest billions of dollars in creating. That needs to be measured in its own universe for the purposes of how we reflect audiences and consumer behavior and marketing efficacy.”

Nielsen declined to respond to Bhatia’s comment.

From a commercial point of view, premium video providers — the traditional television networks — have been able to continue to raise commercial prices on a cost-per-thousand viewers basis partly because of a scarcity in the supply of eyeballs watching their premium content as video consumption has shifted to streaming.

If cross-platform measurement includes more forms of digital video, the supply of eyeballs expands, potentially reducing the pressure keeping prices high for premium video, industry experts said. 

That would particularly be true in the case of the increasing amount of campaigns that are bought programmatically, especially if the algorithms they use to plan and optimize don’t differentiate regarding video source and quality.

“The conflation of these marketplaces is going to create chaos on both sides,” John Halley, president of advertising sales at Paramount Global, said. “The notion of like-to-like content which we have a pretty strong point of view on is going to be part of the evaluation” of new measurement systems.

“They [Nielsen] have to change their product, right?“ Halley said. ”They’re changing their product, to include the capabilities that a lot of other products now have. It's no longer their game to control. We just want to ensure that all of these products get developed in a way that that's supports the marketplace.” 

Asked if YouTube qualifies as premium content for the purpose of cross-platform measurement, Halley was noncommittal. YouTube has worked to create products that package only channels with high-quality, brand safe content for advertisers.  

“It doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t be measured and the other shouldn’t,” Bhatia said. “It actually means that they both need to be measured, but you need to be able to differentiate them so you can associate a value differential that we know has been proven out for decades, quite frankly.”

Not all programmers believe that new measurement systems have to build in differentials to reflect the quality of the content being measured.

“The market determines the value of an impression,” said one senior media company research executive. “Value is derived by experience, engagement, and cost “We need Nielsen and all currency partners to focus on total reach, to accurately count all the eyeballs, first. Next, we can work on content environments: verification, attention, engagement, brand safety, suitability. Then comes brand lift, foot traffic, conversion.”

To others, that’s a bit like establishing standards for the scales used in butcher shops. It properly measures a pound of whatever the butcher puts on the waxed paper. But if you’re ordering ground beef for a barbecue, you have to hope he’s not optimizing the mix using horsemeat along with the beef. ■

Jon Lafayette

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.