TV Debate Moves to Web – How to Count Audiences

Jul 8, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Television networks and advertisers, mired in confusion over how best to count viewers on the Web, are moving toward common ground.
The Internet Advertising Bureau is putting together a team to develop guidelines for counting Web video audiences, said Sheryl Draizen, senior VP and general manager with the group, whose mission is to help online interactive companies grow their revenues.
In the absence of industry standards, networks intent on packaging traditional TV spots with online elements are experimenting with different ways of measuring Internet viewers.
Turner Broadcasting last week said it intends to report how many episodes of its TNT and TBS series are watched online, rather than how many streams, or segments, of a show get played.
Last month, NBC spurred networks to re-examine how they count Web viewers when it announced it had delivered more than 300 million streams of video on NBC.com since last October.
The dispute over how to count audiences on the Internet — by streams, episodes or show starts — is heating up as more people watch TV episodes online and advertisers try to figure out how much they should be spending to reach those viewers.
Advertising in streaming video should hit $1.31 billion this year, up 39 percent from last year, according to a June research report from Accustream iMedia Research.
“The industry would benefit from standardization in terms of reporting because it’s harder to move forward when there is confusion,” said Tracey Scheppach, senior VP and video innovation director at media-buying agency Starcom USA.
Starcom has placed ads for clients on the four big broadcast networks’ Web sites and prefers to receive audience information based on streams, since that closely represents how many times Internet ads are being seen, she said.
Most networks break up online episodes into four to five streams for a drama and two to three streams for a sitcom, making it easier technologically to deliver the shows and also to insert ads in each commercial break. But those benefits carry with them the potential for manipulation when it comes to counting viewers.
“If you report streams, you end up being able to game the system, meaning I can create gains or losses at will, simply by cutting a show into more pieces,” said Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting.
That’s why Turner has decided to switch from reporting streams to episodes. Earlier this year, Turner reported TBS’ “My Boys” had delivered 2.7 million streams online. But each episode was broken into three streams, providing an unclear picture of how many episodes consumers were watching.
“I want to give more information rather than less, and at least give information they can compare to other networks or to episodes on our Web sites,” Mr. Wakshlag said.
The lack of standards so far is keeping the Web from fulfilling its potential as a medium that lets advertisers know exactly who is seeing their commercials — and acting on them.
ABC reports episode starts, while NBC reports streams. Fox releases aggregated streaming figures for Fox Interactive Media, which includes Fox’s full-length episodes and MySpace videos as well. CBS doesn’t release data on consumption of its online video.
NBC prefers to report streams to give a sense of the volume of people clicking in to its sites, said Vivi Zigler, executive VP of NBC Digital Entertainment and New Media.
Videos need to be sliced into sections for advertisers, and to allow consumers to catch up on portions of a show they may have missed, or to watch a scene that’s generating buzz, Ms. Zigler said. Although NBC knows internally how many episodes are watched online, it’s not ready to release those details, she said.
“We are just learning. It’s not quite as transparent as reporting ratings, but we have been pretty good about sharing,” Ms. Zigler said.
ABC initially reported streams viewed of its full-length episodes on ABC.com last summer and then quickly switched to include counts of episodes and streams. Since last fall, ABC.com has delivered more than 120 million episode starts and more than 500 million streams.
“When we first did streams it was just a mad rush to figure out what the data was,” said Albert Cheng, executive VP of digital media with the Disney-ABC Television Group. “But streams are segments of a video. So we decided it’s probably a lot more accurate to call it episode starts.”
The IAB plans to put together a working group to set best practices for Web video reporting or to assign the task to an existing committee, Ms. Draizen said.
The IAB will likely issue such guidelines within the next 12 months or sooner.
“I don’t think it’s a tough one to fix,” she said.


  1. At this stage of the online professional video game, it’s really good timing to get this taken care of, especially when it’s not that difficult to solve.
    It is an important piece of the puzzle that does have to be taken care of before the online video ad model will be really able to confidently take off.
    I’m glad the IAB is getting involved in the task.

  2. This is a great need that we at TubeMogul (www.tubemogul.com), the online video distribution and analytics company, studied in our 6/27 report “What Counts as a View?” http://www.tubemogul.com/blog/?p=59. Sites differ greatly in how they calculate views, and like the IAB, we feel that it is incumbent on the leaders in the industry to come together to discuss and agree upon measurement standards. We are glad the IAB is planning a working group to discuss standards.
    Mark Rotblat
    mark at TubeMogul dot com

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