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3 June 2021

Comscore talks like an industry leader – so why is it not?

With the advertising industry and networks still reeling from the Nielsen ratings fiasco that plagued both the Upfronts, a company like Comscore has the perfect opportunity to shine. For quite some time, Faultline has felt Nielsen is not fit for the future of entertainment measurement, but change rarely happens in a logical or timely fashion – sometimes things need to go drastically wrong first.

Speaking to Faultline this week, Comscore’s CEO, Bill Livek, and CCO, Chris Wilson, gave us their haughty diagnosis of recent affairs. Livek compared the Upfronts scandal to what happened to the Detroit automotive industry in the 70s. “People were buying American cars with awful gas mileage, but the oil shortage woke up consumers and they discovered better products that were made elsewhere. It’s the same thing,” he argued.

But for this comparison to ring true, the industry is going to have to wean itself off Nielsen’s pivotal role in deciding the value of ad inventory. It seems that it is a toxic habit that none of the networks can shake, so we asked Livek and Wilson how they intend to capitalize upon this opportunity? This is hardly the first event to paint Nielsen in a less than favorable light, so what is different this time?

Livek pointed out that 70% of independent ad agencies already use Comscore as their principal currency, with many of those using it exclusively. Equally, some networks, such as CBS, have already expanded their measurement to a dual guarantee of running Nielsen and Comscore numbers simultaneously. This, he argued, meant that Comscore is well placed to leapfrog Nielsen by next year’s Upfronts.

Livek is adamant that by “the next Upfronts, we will be used as a principal currency, front and center. We are talking to all the major ad agencies.”

For those who were not tuned in at the time, April saw some scandalous exchanges between the Video Advertising Bureau and Nielsen, with the former accusing the measurement mammoth of underreporting TV viewership. The Upfronts were just around the corner, and Nielsen was reporting primetime viewership to be down by up to 16% on some networks.

Nielsen initially stonewalled the accusations, before acknowledging that Covid meant that many panel homes were dropped as maintenance visits were not possible. By the time the NewFronts rolled around, the Media Ratings Council confirmed that Nielsen had underreported total TV usage by adults aged 18 to 49 by between 2% and 6%, with total TV audiences under reported by between 1% and 5%. Enter Comscore.

“It’s preposterous that anyone could say viewing dropped in the pandemic,” Livek argued.

He feels this is basic stuff, noting that Comscore had begun to pivot away from sample-based data to wide databases almost twenty years ago. “I knew there would be a day of reckoning,” he preached, noting that response rates within samples have deteriorated over the past few decades. While the industry standard was around 80%, Livek puts it now at around 10%, leaving the other 90% up to extrapolated guess work.

Wilson argued that while this may have worked in an era where there were only three television networks, the fragmented video landscape and disparate channels of ad delivery mean that it is no longer up to the job.

Keen to pick at the flaws of “the other company”, Livek and Wilson were both sharp-tongued about Nielsen’s reliance on domestic installations. They argued that while Comscore’s third-party data – generally coming from operators and OEMs – does rely on opt-ins, this is a world away from the obstacle of having someone come into your home to install and maintain a measurement device.

Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it is hard to argue that Comscore has not been prepared for a shift in attitudes. Comscore has data on 40 million US households and 70 million devices in its artillery and has been working hard to make sure that these huge datasets do not mean broad strokes analytics.

We put it to Livek and Wilson that even these huge data assets require some extrapolation, but they argued that it is an obvious choice if the options are 40 million households, or Nielsen’s 40 thousand.

Wilson highlighted that a key challenge in a fragmenting content landscape is getting a clear picture of who is actually watching. This problem is exacerbated when trying to piece together a picture of an individual across multiple devices and platforms, so Comscore has recently put an emphasis on household-level data rather than personal.

Wilson felt there was a place for both measurement tactics, but household-level insights were the common denominator, and much more conducive to media sellers and buyers understanding how different platforms work together, without a duplication of data.

This is also better suited to the ‘passive’ form of measurement that Comscore uses – with minimal opt-ins required from the user. “You do not know who is in front of the TV if measuring in passive fashion, but if using households, over time you can work towards working out who that person is,” Livek argued.

Advertisers want to understand who the viewer is beyond age and gender, so Comscore has tried to categorize consumers by the products they buy. “The level of accountability that brands expect from an agency is at an all-time high. They expect to change behavioural outcomes,” Livek told us.

As for whether the pandemic’s lift on linear viewership was an anomaly, Livek took the peculiar position that TV viewing has been on the up. He made some valid points that the pandemic’s quashing of many workers’ commutes would lead to more minutes free at home, with TV providing the most economical entertainment. But his argument that “linear is going to be around as long as they keep making great shows” seemed oddly faithful to the old ways of doing things.

Keen to neutralize those comments, Wilson chimed in, noting that “whether it goes up or down, it has to be measured in a way that represents that environment in which it is being consumed.”