- June 24, 2016

Reach vs. Ratings: Bridging the Divide Between TV and Digital Metrics

There’s been quite a bit of industry debate recently about what are the right metrics to enable cross-media comparability of TV and digital. During the Upfronts/Newfronts season, many digital video providers touted metrics of unique viewers or video views in comparison to TV audience metrics. Several have since argued that this is not a fair comparison since TV is based on average-minute audience numbers (ratings) that speak to the average number of people viewing at any given minute, whereas digital video metrics often rely on a cumulative audience number counting people as they consume content over a period of time – could be daily, weekly or in most cases, monthly. If we could just use consistent metrics, the argument goes, then we would have a much clearer view of how digital video really stacks up to TV.

And this sentiment is right, of course – at least in theory. The challenge, however, is the nature of how the two media are consumed. TV metrics were built around the notion that to accurately reflect potential or actual audience to an ad, you need to look at the people tuned to the program in which the ad runs in the minute the ad runs. If you tuned in before, or after, you did not get the opportunity to see the ad, and therefore should not be counted in the audience. Ratings is the right construct here.

Digital media has traditionally been built around the concept of reach. The ‘reach’ of a web site is the number of people that visit that website during the period as defined (e.g. daily, weekly, monthly). The argument being that the web site has the opportunity to reach, and therefore deliver an advertising message, to everyone who comes to the site, irrespective of when they come. The number of people visiting during the average minute is meaningless from this perspective. Reach is the right construct.

The world of course, is no longer so black and white. Technology is freeing TV from the time constraint (with DVR and VOD) and TV advertising from being bound to a specific program (with addressable advertising). The internet is increasingly an instrument to deliver video. Where it is an extension of TV, it can carry the same ad load and the same ads as TV. One can argue that average minute ratings are the right measure for this.

Suddenly, the answer to ‘Reach or Ratings’ gets a bit more complicated because what is TV and what is digital video is getting blended together. Rather than a simple ‘Reach’ or ‘Ratings’, the right answer becomes ‘It depends’. It depends upon what business question someone is looking to answer and how the content (or advertising) in question is/can be consumed. In some cases, ratings may be the right metric (if I buy one spot on the Super Bowl, how many people are likely to see it), in other cases, reach may be (if I do a homepage takeover of a website for six hours, how many people will get the opportunity to see my ad).

One thing that does get a bit lost in this debate is engagement, or time spent and what role that plays in highlighting the quality of the audience and the audience experience with content (and advertising). Time spent is the key ingredient for ratings. The more time people spend watching a show, the higher its ratings will be. This very important metric is not captured by reach alone. Which brings me to something I’ve heard on more than one occasion from industry leaders in research: “If you can tell me three things about the audience - how many, how often, how long – I can answer any question about my audience. These three are the foundational metrics.” (Thank you Jack Wakshlag, retired head of Research at Turner for this invaluable insight.)

If we’re comparing TV to digital video, then let’s make sure we have the benefit of each of these dimensions to properly assess the value of a piece of content. We must be able to reflect that a piece of short-form digital video content often carries only a single ad whereas a 30-minute TV show has an average of about fifteen 30-second spots, so in this case TV has far greater monetization potential for the content owner. Moreover, TV can hit a given reach threshold much more quickly than most digital content could ever hope to achieve. These facts can easily get lost if we ignore the time spent dimension.

Of course, if we’re comparing a 30-minute television show viewed online versus being viewed on linear TV, then average-minute audience is the appropriate metric to use for both platforms.

Where does this lead us as we move closer and closer to true media convergence? As audiences traverse more platforms, watch more content on their own schedules, and can be reached with ads in a more targeted and less linear fashion, the metrics landscape will demand greater consistency and comparability. This doesn’t necessarily argue for any of the existing standards in TV and digital media measurement to go away, but it does raise the need for common framework through which both platforms can be equitably judged.

A combination of how many (reach), how often (frequency) and how long (time spent) can help illuminate the audiences and facilitate the right comparisons across the increasingly blurring media. So let’s stop pitting reach and ratings against one another and recognize that in the cross-platform future both metrics are essential and will be needed to bridge the TV/digital divide.

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