Best of ’23: Between A Hard Place And A Rock

In an otherwise very quiet holiday week, any time a major media company makes news, people like moi notice.  So I couldn’t help but smile when I saw this quick little nugget drop courtesy of DEADLINE’s Tom Tapp yesterday:

Amazon announced in September that ads were on the way for Prime Video‘s entertainment content. Now we have a date.  On January 29, commercials will be introduced to series and movies airing on the service in the U.S., UK, Germany and Canada. The move was announced in a letter sent to subscribers:

We are writing to you today about an upcoming change to your Prime Video experience. Starting January 29, Prime Video movies and TV shows will include limited advertisements. This will allow us to continue investing in compelling content and keep increasing that investment over a long period of time. We aim to have meaningfully fewer ads than linear TV and other streaming TV providers. No action is required from you, and there is no change to the current price of your Prime membership.

And with that, Amazon will not only have a massive lead in the size of its ad-addressable subscriber base over Netflix and its traditional media-backed competitors (Apple, remember, is still a holdout in that space). but it will also have a dramatically more accurate and sizable universe to measure its audience against than any of them.  They’re making such inroads that, as we reminded this fall, Nielsen itself is seeking to work with them to tap into their size and scope.  If you haven’t been paying attention, they’ve got a bit of a street cred problem these days.  

But we were indeed paying attention this fall when one of those competitors took the liberty of taking necessary action to find the proverbial better mousetrap.  And with that, we saluted Paramount Global advertising head John Halley for literally putting his money where his mouth is.   He knows darn well that the track record of Nielsen in its century of existence is only to institute change when they are economically threatened.  And he used one of the bigger congregations of media company braintrust to announce it.

If only the company he currently works for was in as good shape with its future as those that Halley is looking to for alternatives to an outdated and slow-to-react old standard are.

Note to those at Amazon just in case your expectations for increased sales opportunties grows in concert with your addressables:  You could do a lot worse than to bring someone like Halley on board, just in case he might be looking for a more stable and supportive environment.

Even in the direst of times, people with business to do find the time to gather in person to help to solve the particular problems of their little corner of the world.  No, last week’s CIMM Conference at the ARF, aka the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement at the Advertising Research Foundation, wasn’t quite up there in the headlines with things going on in Washington, and certainly not in Gaza.  But for folks heavily invested in worlds where these numbers determine the fates of companies and careers, it was front page, top of fold.

And it was during this conference when Advertising Age’s Jack Neff reported that yet another major client has chosen to invest in something other than Nielsen to be their arbiter:

Paramount Global chose iSpot.tv as a currency option for linear and streaming TV in the U.S., with measurement and trading on the measurement company’s data expected to begin in the first quarter, the companies announced today.  The two companies currently are completing technology integrations to “enable fast, seamless advertising transactions inside of Paramount’s proprietary and licensed systems,” according to a Paramount statement. 

“We are committed to supporting all new currency providers certified by the U.S. Joint Industry Committee [JIC],” said John Halley, president of Paramount Advertising, in the statement, “and we look forward to bringing greater transparency and flexibility to the way TV is transacted and measured. Our partnership with iSpot helps facilitate that goal.” The JIC was formed earlier this year to create standards for alternative currencies. 

Since assuming the helm at the head honcho of monetization for The Rock, Halley has been as outspoken and critical of Nielsen as anyone in his position, particularly since Linda Yaccarino answered the siren’s song of Elon Musk’s blood money to move to the dark side and herself become part of a larger, more dystopian discourse than this.  But make no mistake:  Halley’s long-threatened move to embrace alternatives to a company that has repeatedly underdelivered both in performance and expectations is significant.   And as TV REV’s Alan Wolk further explained, it’s especially significant for the JIC:

The JIC, whose members include major media companies, major ad agencies and major measurement companies not named “Nielsen,” is a relatively new organization whose goal is, among other things, to speed up the adoption of alternative currencies.

Not that they’re being hasty about it or cutting corners.

It’s just that the existing system, wherein companies need to get accreditation by the Media Rating Council (MRC) has long been criticized for being overly lengthy and overly costly to the point where it effectively shut down the ability of any newcomers to challenge Nielsen. Newcomers generally being start-ups and all that. 

So the fact that the JIC is the new sheriff in town is the real news here.

At the conference, the old guard rubbed shoulders with the new, with MRC officials present and longtime president George Ivie defending his company’s position.  Wolk, to his credit, is sympathetic, but his pointed critique defines the urgency and necessity for change and evolution:

The MRC will tell you that they are underfunded—members pay just $17K/year— not to mention understaffed— and that their vetting process is incredibly thorough which is why it takes so long.

All of that is likely true, but it is also true that the status quo meant it was all but impossible to mount a successful challenge to Nielsen as an accredited player and that the lack of any sort of real competition led to a situation where the industry was ill-prepared for the shift to streaming.

The JIC is doing a world of good by providing a rationale for companies like Paramount to start using alternative currencies. Not that they absolutely needed one, but being able to tell clients that an independent third party blessed something is always going to make your life easier.

And as Neff reminds, Halley and Paramount’s move is the latest in a series of body blows which the longtime incumbent, and a company who historically has swallowed up competitors by buying them out, has suffered:

ISpot joins Comscore and VideoAmp (both adopted under ViacomCBS) as currency alternatives to Nielsen for Paramount. ISpot, Comscore and VideoAmp received conditional certification from the JIC last month.  ISpot also has attained national currency status with NBCUniveral, and beginning next year, with Amazon Prime for “Thursday Night Football.” But rivals Comscore and VideoAmp have attained broader currency status so far among the Nielsen alternatives, with both having currency status with Fox Networks, TelevisaUnivision and Warner Bros. Discovery. VideoAmp is similarly set to join iSpot as a Nielsen alternative with Amazon Prime on “TNF” next year, and became the sole currency for Allen Media Group earlier this year.

And through all of this, Nielsen has remained relatively quiet.  Neff reiterates that Paramount still has the option of continuing to trade on Nielsen data, even though Halley indicated earlier this year that the company wouldn’t share streaming data with new data providers that don’t participate in the Joint Industry Committee certification process, which Nielsen has not.  But let’s just say they don’t seem to be Halley’s flavor of choice.

The most noise Nielsen has made of late was its announcement that it would collaborate with Amazon on Thursday Night Football measurement, integrating Amazon’s data into their numbers as an acknowledgement that it needs an infusion of detail and improved accuracy.  Amazon’s recent announcement to make its full 67 million US subscribers as its default tier assures that they are the leader in the clubhouse among streamers for AVOD scale.  Protests from competitors who don’t have this capability halted this process for the moment.  But that doesn’t refute the mutual need of Nielsen and Amazon to figure out a way to work with each other–if not facilitate an outright alliance or even merger.  And, hey, there aren’t too many companies out there that could afford to bail out the $16B gambit Nielsen’s investors made when it acquired the company, only to learn that Halley may be among the strongest minded detractors, but he is hardly the only one.

So I’m still in the camp that believes that Nielsen may indeed reach a point of no return where Amazon possibly swallows them as their way to enhance the measurement, monetization and credibility of its AVOD efforts, not to mention use other Nielsen businesses to enhance the learnings it gleans from its even more massive Prime membership.  Which would mean that the proactive moves of media companies to embrace the JIC’s accredited businesses is all the more prescient.

I don’t envy the nervousness of the few competent and able Nielsen employees who remain to fight the good fight.  Layoffs announced earlier this summer diminished company morale greatly.  And it sure doesn’t help when they have to see things like this in print.

But I believe even they would admit that Nielsen’s remarkably consistent track record to continue to kick the can down the road, to refuse to accelerate the introduction of what it claims are better ways to more accurately measure media, and instead focus on internal shuffling of the deck chairs on what continues to look like the Titanic, is even more disheartening.

So bully for The Rock, and congrats again to the hard chargers at ISpot.  There’s a five-alarm fire in media, and I know there are dozens of folks like myself that feel the fallout daily.   Keep the change a-comin’.  And keep meeting to make more of it.  For everyone’s sake.

Until next time…

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