Stop Protecting. Start innovating. : Digital Metrics and the TV Industry

It’s an interesting time in digital content distribution. While music and game folks have found ways to roll with the transition away from stamped media to their work reduced to transmission via 1’s and 0’s on a nebulous network, those in the video business are still a little bit in denial.  Industry events for the television world are still reporting after 10 years that TV viewing rates are going down, which shouldn’t be that shocking as folks in the tech industry have been monitoring the change for years. Tech blog GigaOm proclaimed “TV is the Second Screen” in 2013.

Part of the denial of the change comes from our cousins in advertising. Advertisers have money. They have quite a lot of it in fact.  But they are very careful about where and how they spend their money. For decades they’ve had methods and models and calculators of assumptions.  It’s taken them a while to figure out how to adapt digital metrics into their models. But since it was reported in April 2014 that US advertisers now spend more in digital ad spends than broadcast, and reported in June that CBS in the US “make(s) more money per viewer streaming than we do on television”, it’s a little late for folks in the broadcast world to be coming to the online table to keep up on the cash transition.

But at least they are arriving – especially since it’s been reported that Nielsen will begin tracking Netflix data. When this news broke, my twitter feed of TV folks went “whoa! Big news!”.  And my twitter feed of folks in digital yawned a little, and mostly shared out of amusement that their TV cousins have caught up to the power of “big data” the stuff that Netflix’s entire business model has been based on since they shipped their first DVD. (I can’t find he exact article I want to link here about how Netflix breaks down their users, but here are two interesting ones to hold you over from GigaOm and Wired.)

Netflix has been tracking your data well before Nielsen came on board. So does YouTube. I’m going to assume Hulu also tracks user data.  I’ve been tracking online video views on my tiny little convergent projects through server logs. Canadians are leaders in digital products (Hootsuite, Wattpad, Freshbooks, Wave, and expats Club Penguin, Flickr… and now I’ll duck from all the Canadian-made digital products I’ve missed that should have been mentioned), all of which are based on metrics. So you’d think it would be a shoo-in for our broadcasters to lead the digital charge. But no. In 2009 when the CRTC accounted new media broadcast would be exempt, if anyone couldn’t believe then that only content licensing was holding Netflix back from the Canadian market, then they weren’t monitoring trends or paying attention to how the internet works.

But let’s not run around and blame the CRTC for this.  First, it’s not like they’ve had much pressure from the government to do anything about what they now call digital media broadcasting. They’re trying, but the current Canadian government has little to no interest to rewrite the Broadcast Act and the Telecommunications Act. So the CRTC has to work within the framework they currently have.  Given that, it would be easier if the industry tried working with them instead of pushing back on everything.

Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to sit on various metrics committees for the Canada Media Fund and the CRTC as they tried to research ways to integrate digital engagement and online video views into their system – finding ways to capture viewers on other platforms to modernize their policies (information on the CMF’s exploration into digital media measurement is available here, and select “Digital Media Performance Measurement Advisory Committee in the body roll-down).

Through the industry outreach by these two bodies, I was amazed to see how may key players resisted the process instead of embracing this new opportunity to grow the Canadian industry and be a leader in global broadcasting.  It felt like many at the table saw digital measurements threatening, and rather than try to help progress Canadian broadcast policy, the key players mostly played up the “we don’t get digital, there are no metrics, so don’t make us think about it” card.  I should have kept a tally of how many times I heard “it’s impossible” and “you can’t track that” in these discussions that digital professionals (including the digital staff at some of these key players) had been tracking for many years.

Granted, there would have been problems with detailed tracking online video views in the early 2010s.  Many of the Canadian broadcasters and independent producers used Flash video players, and in that tool all you could see was how many times the videos were cued and not necessarily the good stuff of how long a user stayed before they bailed on a video, etc.  Of course, how this is was seen as not good, but we put all our trust into a single 3rd party metrics provider for the broadcast industry who reported earlier this year that for MONTHS they had a “technical glitch” causing inaccurate ratings to be reported in the US which likely influenced show cancellations and renewals, I have no words.. But again, who in the 2010s wasn’t looking ahead to changes in online content distribution with Flash falling out of flavour? It’s not like anyone in the digital industry didn’t already know HTML5 (is seen by many as the saviour of video content online) was in the works. Well, organizations not really watching the social trends projecting how users will change viewing habits and the upcoming digital tools available to support these new habits.

To be fair to traditional broadcasters, they’ve been working the way they’ve been working for many years.  The push against going to digital over the air is well-documented (rather than dig through CRTC archives, have some fun digging through this blog that tracked Canada’s Digital OTA transition) because it means a cost of new technology for transmission – let alone the cost of developing transmission over internet. These are established entities with a set methodology of operations.  Switching to digital has been a big deal.  Not helped by digital and internet technologies constantly changing – the investment today will be thrown out the window in 2 years, and that every 2 years after because of upgrades to viewing devices, video compression, and video player interface expectations by the users.  There is no doubt all of this uncertainty is scary to publicly traded companies who need stability and long-term visions to up stock valuation.

As an industry, Canada’s television and broadcast sector has to get over the idea that these changes are something that can be controlled. If they don’t turn their focus away from managing status quo and innovating their business models and operations structures, the talent of tomorrow will take control of their own data and find ways of flourishing without them.

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