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A vision of how broadcasters can unify their linear and digital advertising offers

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More linear TV, including live programming, is being watched as a digital stream, whether it is viewed on smartphones, tablets or PCs, or on connected TV devices (via apps). For broadcasters who are fully or partially funded by advertising it is imperative that they monetise these streams fully and give their advertising clients a good Quality of Experience.

Sometimes this means the same advertiser who is advertising in the broadcast linear feed must be placed in the same position on the digital simulcast. For live tent-pole events, especially as audiences grow, it could mean that all the major advertisers on the broadcast channel want to replicate their one-to-many ads in the digital simulcast.

Traditionally, this has been near-impossible to achieve unless you replicate the entire broadcast feed online, with the original ads baked into the digital stream. The problem with this approach is that you may not make money from a baked-in advertisement. Comcast-owned FreeWheel thinks it has the answer: an advertising platform that can replicate the advertising break that plays out on a linear broadcast, if required, but served through a digital ad server.

The technology step-change that underpins these capabilities is simple to understand, if hard to implement. The digital ad server, which is used to deciding what ads are placed into the digital stream, comes under the control of a greater authority – a linear advertising schedule that is imported and which trumps the independent decisioning and optimisations that the ad server would normally perform.

Thus, the linear ad schedule informs the ad server that it must place Coca Cola first in the first ad break within the digital simulcast stream because they are first on the linear broadcast. Nike must be placed second and Ford third, because they are placed there in the linear broadcast ad break, as examples.

“You have to say that for this stream of content, you [the ad server] are forbidden from decisioning on the advert [spot],” explains Thomas Bremond, General Manager, International at Comcast, which owns Freewheel. “You have to go against the logic of the ad server and the ad decisioning system and force the schedule upon them.”

If you are going to include all the same ads in the same spots in the same ad breaks, then why bother to use a digital ad server at all? As Bremond explains, the problem with using baked-in ads for a digital simulcast is that advertisers will enjoy the exposures and some will say, ‘Thank you very much’ but will not pay for them unless you can prove how many people saw the ad in the digital environment and for how long.

As most people are aware, streamed multiscreen TV is not being adequately measured by traditional audience research bodies who provide the numbers that underpin the trading ‘currency’ for broadcast linear TV. If an ad is served from the digital ad server, however, there is evidence that it was delivered and played out on a device.

“You need to deliver identifiable and reportable impression-by-impression data. Then it becomes measurable and you can sell the spots. If the ad is inserted by a digital ad server, you get the impression count,” Bremond points out.

Digital ad servers are the means to monetise a streamed ad break, but if left alone they may serve a collection of ads that is completely different to the one seen in the broadcast ad break, especially if integrated to a programmatic demand side platform.

Bremond points out: “In digital, when you call the advert server it creates the right advertising break based on the campaigns that work at that moment. It recreates the stream with [what it considers] the right set of adverts. If you use a digital ad server, you know that it will recreate the whole advertising stream and not recreate the same experience [as on linear broadcast].”

FreeWheel introduced its HyLDA (Hybrid Liner Digital Ad Scheduler) to ensure it is possible to serve ads digitally, so that they count as impressions, but in a way that completely replicates the broadcast linear ad schedule. Each break and individual ad can be played out in digital at the precise time that they play out on broadcast, thanks to the integration of the broadcast linear and digital systems.

As well as giving advertisers the chance to reproduce the broadcast feed online, the technology ensures that viewers can have exactly the same viewing experience, including ads, as on broadcast – which may be considered a bonus for some consumers (and broadcasters).

Enforcing outside rules onto digital ad servers is increasingly important. FreeWheel is already making it possible to include programmatically-sold ads within the same ad break as direct-sold ads. For this to work, the digital ad server must be told what direct-sold ads need to be placed within an ad pod and informed about the commercial compliance requirements that accompany it.

Thus, if Coca Cola is taking a spot in the break with a direct-sold advertisement, the ad server may be free to sell another ad spot programmatically but not to Pepsi (as a competitor). The decisioning engine will also be instructed that it must not return a Coca Cola ad as its programmatic choice (given that Coke may well have issued instructions to Demand Side Platforms to find them suitable digital inventory during this period), to avoid duplication.

FreeWheel announced its HyLDA concept a couple of years ago, describing it as their biggest step towards unification of advertising management and a “crucial bridge between digital environments and traditional linear TV…bringing together the scheduling capabilities of a linear ad system with the dynamic nature of the digital world.” The company added: “This solution offers publishers an unprecedented level of control over their digital ad environments.”

HyLDA was put through its paces last year with one of the greatest live sports events on earth when FOX used it for its digital Super Bowl coverage. FreeWheel was the exclusive provider of ad decisioning solutions to FOX for the event. The U.S. network was able to completely control the digital ad experience and mirror the national linear ad stream. FOX was even able to open up its digital schedule to its affiliates for the first time ever, serving custom digital ad insertions for the local ads of 135 affiliates (across all digital platforms).

The ability to replicate a broadcast advertising feed in multiscreen is an example of how premium digital video advertising systems are becoming more flexible and how bridges are being built between environments that were previously separated. FreeWheel is leading the charge to break down siloes and has some notable innovations under its belt, starting with the ability to compare prices that potential direct-sales and programmatic buyers are willing to pay for an ad spot.

As noted above, the company has made it possible to place direct-sold and programmatically sold ads in the same break/pod, so unifying these two key demand sources. This has not been possible until now. Previously, you had to sell a whole ad break using direct sales or a whole ad break using programmatic. As an example of how that limits flexibility, if you had to include a particular advertiser in that break, like a sponsor, via a direct sale then this meant the whole break had to be sold directly. Direct sales no longer limit what you can do with the rest of the spots.

Once you add targeting capabilities to this mix it becomes clear how many options advertisers will be offered in the digital environment. A car marker (as an example) could secure second place in a digital break but use it to show a different car to digital viewers to the one shown to the broadcast population. It could show a different car only to a subset of the digital audience (and the same car to the rest).

As seen above, broadcasters could decide to mirror the broadcast stream on tentpole live events or just ensure that one advertiser (maybe the show sponsor) gets a guaranteed ad spot in a break. In some instances they can sell a spot to whoever offers them the highest CPM from a list of direct deals or inventory purchase offers coming from the supply-side platform (programmatic system).

As part of its attempts to unify the advertising environment, FreeWheel is working to deliver holistic yield management that helps a broadcaster/channel owner maximise their total advertising revenues across all their inventory on all devices, (taking account of the different demand sources). The company also wants to help these companies extend their sales capabilities into digital, using properties (and inventory) that are not owned-and-operated by them.

Bremond revealed recently that FreeWheel is looking at how it can harness its own data prowess to help broadcasters work out when an advertiser should start spending their next EURO on digital inventory and not on broadcast television. Advertisers will have to work this out anyway, as even the best TV campaign reaches a certain % of an audience cost-effectively but becomes an expensive way to add every additional reach point after that.

Bremond sees an opportunity for broadcasters to become the advisers who can tell an advertiser or agency when this point is reached – and then offer them the chance to hit their desired audience via digital instead. Two things need to be in place besides accurate cost-per-reach-point predictions: the broadcaster needs first-party data so it can offer the advertiser a subset of its total audience, but found in the digital world beyond broadcast TV; the broadcaster must also have deals with third-party digital inventory owners that gives the broadcaster access to the third-party advertising spots so they (the broadcaster) can then sell that spot to their advertising client.

This is known as ‘audience extension’ and the broadcaster or channel owner effectively becomes a sales consultant rather than a straightforward broadcast sales house. That, in itself, takes the broadcaster at least one step up the value chain.

Bremond confirms: “If you are running a brand building campaign, TV is formidable from a cost standpoint until you reach a certain level of reach. Then the marginal cost of reaching more of your audience increases. You need to know when it is no longer worth using broadcast TV.”

Bremond points out that you may not have to switch the extra spending to digital in order to benefit from the granular targeting that should deliver cost-effective incremental reach. You could divert the money into addressable TV on a set-top box, including within linear broadcasts – like with Sky AdSmart.

The bottom line is that the broadcaster advises when it is time to complement standard broadcast TV with some targeting in order to extend reach, then makes different targeting options available. Partnerships will be needed.

Unifying broadcast and digital, and enabling holistic management of the advertising landscape, is not even the end of the roadmap or the limit to the vision at FreeWheel. There is one other step that is increasingly important to the company as it works more closely with another Comcast subsidiary, Comcast Technology Solutions, which has partly grown out of thePlatform and provides a technology platform to manage, publish, distribute and monetise multiscreen TV, including commerce solutions for TVOD and pay-per-view.

As you can read in a separate story, Bremond thinks another piece in the ‘holistic’ jigsaw is to better manage when content should be monetised using advertising and when it should be monetised with subscription or transactions. This is a theme he touched upon at Future TV Advertising Forum in London last December. This could mean content switching seamlessly in and out of ad-supported windows, too. You can read more about that, here.

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