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Canada could combine all Pay TV set-top box data into a shared audience measurement system

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Set-top box return path data from different Pay TV operators, like Bell, will need to be fused to create a shared STB audience measurement system in Canada

Canada could be on the way towards a notable world first in advanced advertising; a set-top box audience measurement system that combines the data from multiple Pay TV operators into a single data set. This data would then be available for use by the Pay TV platforms (called BDUs Broadcast Distribution Undertakings – in Canada), broadcasters and the advertising industry to better understand who is watching television, what they are watching and when (subject to privacy-compliant anonymity)

Recognizing that Canada was lagging the U.S. and some European markets when it comes to set-top box based advanced advertising, and fearful that television advertising budgets could flow out of the industry due to perceived weaknesses (among some advertisers) in terms of measurement and attribution, the Canadian broadcast regulator, the CRTC, has demanded that the TV industry cooperate on a project to determine the viability of a comprehensive, multi-BDU STB audience measurement system. Numeris, the broadcast measurement provider for Canada, will report this summer on whether the vision is technically feasible.

Neil McEneaney, President & CEO at Numeris, said he was optimistic about the outcome, when discussing the initiative at Future TV Advertising Forum Canada last week. He was careful not to raise hopes too high, but also declined the obvious chance to dampen expectations just months before his organisation reports back to the CRTC. He outlined the difficulties involved in fusing the data from different BDUs and therefore dozens of different set-top box brands and models, and said they had run into a “bunch of problems” along the way associated with retrieving and transferring the data, plus all kinds of privacy issues.

If the report does confirm that it is possible to fuse the data from multiple BDUs, and the CRTC decides to push ahead, the next step will be a trial of the system in Toronto. Given that the CRTC instigated this initiative, fearful that advertising money that is lost from the TV ecosystem would undermine content production in Canada (in a country that proudly protects its home-grown content, partly to ensure programming diversity), it is hard to imagine that they would back away from this project if the technology works.

It was clear from Future TV Advertising Forum Canada that media sales executives and media buyers would welcome the insights that set-top box reporting delivers. The jury is still out on whether there is a business model for BDUs to introduce household-level addressable TV advertising in Canada but it was also clear at the Toronto event that there is a lot more to STB-data driven ad-tech than addressable TV, including the ability to data-optimise standard linear TV ad buys, like buying against channels that perform strongly with your core target audiences, including on channels and programmes that did not appear obvious places to advertise. Speaking at the event, the U.S. cable operator Cablevision also showed how STB data can underpin a data-insights service, helping channel owners to better understand where their audiences come from, what else they watch, why ratings decline between episodes, etc.

If the shared STB audience measurement system gets a green-light for data fusion, the obvious hurdles would include whether the various BDUs can cooperate effectively and the business models that would sustain the new data ecosystem. However, the mood-music at Future TV Advertising Forum Canada was that the will does exist to make this happen – and there was even a suggestion that we could see the shared STB reporting in place as early as 2017.

TV buyers who are keen to harness the kind of data insights they already enjoy from U.S. Pay TV operators (thanks to their combination of STB tuning data cross-referenced against subscriber records and lifestyle and purchasing data) understand that the Canadian market cannot deliver this model any sooner. There was also a sense that they will become impatient if this kind of advanced ad-tech takes any longer to implement.

Returning to the technical side of the STB audience measurement project, McEneaney warned that it will not be easy and will take some time. “We are trying to take different BDUs and fuse their data and I don’t think that has been done anywhere in the world. It is highly complex and this is a long-term project.” With a dramatic flourish he then told the industry to “fasten your seatbelts!”

STB audience measurement

Set-top box audience measurement is already used commercially in various markets including the U.S. and the UK and provides second-by-second tune-in records to confirm what people are watching and when. The anonymized reporting can be used to identify even very small audiences on smaller channels that are under-reported by measurement panels, enabling those channels to prove they have viewers when the ratings system said they did not, and therefore charge advertisers for exposure.

STB data can also be used to reveal affinities between the types of people in a Pay TV home and the channels or other content they watch. This requires an understanding of the demographics and lifestyle choices of the people inside a home, information that is harvested from subscriber records that can be cross-referenced against third-party data sources like loyalty cards and other purchase records.

Many of the companies who advocate household-level addressable TV advertising (the agencies and sales houses) are using tuning data to demonstrate which homes were exposed to a particular advertisement. This can then be cross-referenced against subsequent decisions by household members to visit a car showroom or purchase a product (using third-party data sources). This attribution is a powerful tool when demonstrating to advertisers what return on investment they are getting on their targeted advertising.

Set-top box audience measurement is usually characterized as census measurement because of the vast numbers of homes monitored, in comparison to a representative sample that reports to a panel measurement system. This type of measurement is also called set-top box return path data (RPD).

It is generally accepted that panel samples deliver accurate results for larger channels (and therefore the bulk of TV viewing) but the panel samples are not big enough to guarantee that all viewing on smaller and niche channels is represented in the era of hundreds of channels and increasingly fragmented audiences. STB reporting can overcome this weakness. It is considered a complement to panels today rather than a replacement.

Outside of Canada, STB reporting has been introduced by Pay TV operators (and indeed, now by free-to-air platform operators) as a service differentiator. They have their own data records and measurement service. The Canadian model is extraordinary in attempting to force the various Pay TV operators to open up their STB reporting to a shared system.

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