They like the show – but did they see the ad?

With new technology and new players like Rogers, true TV ad audience measurement is just around the corner

So you paid millions to advertise in CSI: Miami. It’s got great ratings, the right demo for your product and not a bad environment (though the post mortem scenes might not go well with, say, pasta sauce).

Now if people would only stop taking pee breaks during the commercials, you’d be all set. Because you know they’re watching the show – the Nielsen and BBM numbers tell you that – but all you really care about is whether they’re watching the ads.

For years now, advertisers have screamed for Nielsen and BBM to measure the audiences for the ads, rather than the shows, and for years it’s been too expensive or technically difficult.

But now that’s all about to change.

Why? Ian MacLean, director of iTV Lab at Media Experts in Montreal, says the move to digital television is the key.

‘Because digital set-top boxes have a unique identifying address – much the same as a computer has an ISP address – we can now measure with great precision whether an ad was played on the television set in a digital household,’ he says. ‘There are billions of dollars spent on television advertising and I think in this climate of accountability they want to be able to measure ROI on ad investment. It is possible in a digital environment.’

MacLean adds that there are privacy issues around collecting this information, but two-way communication can give viewers the opportunity to opt in and agree to have their viewership measured.

Dean MacDonald, COO of Rogers Cable, says from a technical perspective, audience measurement through set-top boxes is possible and something that Rogers will look at down the road.

MacDonald believes that digital cable measurement would provide accuracy and sophistication – and even cross-platform measurement.

‘Advertising on the Internet is increasing and we know the reach of the medium is increasing as well. The good news is that all those services are online. Whether it is a digital set-top box or the Internet, as long as they’re connected to a device that’s digital in some form. The means, if not evident today, is just lying on the surface waiting for the right software to be applied to it.’

Mike Leahy, president of Nielsen Media Research in Markham, Ont., points out that audience measurement in one-minute increments has been available for years and Nielsen’s Spotwatch service has enabled practical use of that data.

But because most ads are 30 seconds, he admits that advertisers are looking for more granularity.

Thus, Nielsen is working on new software and other technology that will allow more finely granulated audience measurement. It will take its first stab at achieving this goal by launching an ‘active-passive people meter’ in the U.S. next summer, but Leahy says the company is also working on a system that would work with the digital BDUs, just as MacLean and MacDonald visualize.

‘With equipment-specific panels we could go to Cogeco, Rogers, Videotron or Shaw and actually pull the data through the digital set-top boxes,’ says Leahy. ‘We can then shoot a software meter right to the TV set, where we could deliver a kind of onscreen ability to do the people meter side of the measurement. You will get bigger samples but you will still need traditional panels to ensure you’ve got representation of all the ways people view TV, whether off air, cable, satellite or digital.’

Leahy cautions, however, that there are some concerns regarding commercial, as opposed to program audience measurement. In particular, he says, once you have data segmented in less than one-minute increments, the data can be less reliable and more difficult to manage.