Opinion

The whole industry should be worried about OzTAM’s digital ratings backflip

Nic-Christensen-234x151-234x151-234x151OzTAM’s U-turn over the way its new digital ratings can be reported by the TV networks undermines its authority and sets a worrying precedent for the wider industry argues Nic Christensen. 

It’s amazing the difference five days can make.

After years of planning, last Monday the Australian TV Networks launched world-leading digital ratings metric the Video Player Measurment (VPM), which measured, nationally, the average number of devices viewing full episodes of catch-up TV content.

No longer would media buyers have to rely on unreliable and incomparable streaming and catch-up numbers from the networks.

The move was long-awaited and an important step forward as consumer behaviour shifts from linear viewing to a digital-on-demand world.

On Monday, OzTAM literally underscored the fact this metric counted a national number of devices and shouldn’t be added to average metropolitan TV audience figures in its reporting guidelines.

Monday's Oztam VPM guidelines.

Monday’s Oztam VPM guidelines

For a full explanation on why OzTAM made this decision see here, but the key points are that, initially OzTAM insisted the VPM figures were not “like for like” with their regular ratings data which is measured through ratings boxes and panels.

When two different TV networks, Seven and Ten, breached the guidelines by adding the figures together on Monday OzTAM said it would “reinforce” the rules.

That was last week.

This week, following a board meeting, it’s a new world where OzTAM no longer cares that national device data is being integrated with metro audience figures.

The history here is important. OzTAM is owned jointly by the Seven Network, the Nine Network and Network Ten, and was set up in 1999 as an antidote to frustration with Nielsen’s counting of audiences. 

In particular, Nine was frustrated with the metric service Nielsen used and eventually the three rivals set up their own metric where they owned the data and could have a greater say over the rules.

More than 15 years later and the only other significant example of media owners defying the accepted metric moving outside the rules is the newspaper industry with its EMMA readership metric.

PrintOzTAM is at pains to point out that the move has the support of the marketer body Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) and Media Federation of Australia (MFA) which both had representatives at last week’s board meeting. That may be the case, but the industry metric will struggle to avoid the perception that it was brought to heel by its shareholders – the TV Networks. That’s not a great look.

But that’s not actually why the industry should care. To be clear: the actual impact on TV ratings – save for a couple of TV shows – isn’t huge.

Peiffer notes that VPM is likely undercounting the digital audience not over counting.

Peiffer notes that VPM is likely undercounting the digital audience not over counting.

And as Doug Peiffer, CEO of OzTAM, notes, the likely consequence of this is that OzTAM will be under-counting rather than over-counting the digital audience. After all each stream is counted as one device – one viewer – when there could be multiple viewers in some instances.

However, the move is already seen as a poke in the eye by regional TV networks.

They’re angered by what Southern Cross Austereo CEO Grant Blackley labelled the “infiltration of our markets”, and are watching closely the current court case where fellow regional player WIN is attempting to thwart its affiliate Nine’s streaming into its broadcast areas.

Regional TamRegional TV networks have their own TV metric, Regional TAM, and have used the OzTAM blackflip to put pressure on their metro affiliates.

As SCA sales boss Brian Gallagher told Mumbrella last week: “Seven are doing daily reports of viewing across all markets, which includes regional and rural viewers in markets where they don’t have a licence.

“So if it’s acceptable to publish online viewing numbers and add them to their broadcast figures, even though the methodology is different, why isn’t it ok to publish the split between metropolitan and regional online viewing?”

This is a charge that OzTAM has left itself open to; however, it could have perhaps have been avoided if it had, for example, allowed industry body FreeTV – which already publishes both the OzTAM and Regional TAM numbers – to also publish a “national VPM figure”.

Expect the jockeying around streaming between the regionals and metros to continue for some time. But what is a large concern is the precedent that has been set for other metrics.

For example the print industry could look at this precedent and say “it’s ok to publish device or browser level data with no panel behind it to establish the true size of the audience”.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully expect OzTAM to move quickly towards a panel (the TV Network’s desire for demographic data will take care of that); however, we have already seen major magazine publishers clumsily attempting to integrate likes on Facebook and followers on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest with their unique audience figures for print/web and now social media.

The Magazine Media 360 Report is an attempt by a struggling sector to “comprehensively capture all multi-platform data” across a range of media.

Magazine Media 360's latest numbers Source: MPA. Click to enlarge.

Magazine Media 360’s latest numbers Source: MPA. Click to enlarge.

Unfortunately it fails to recognise that someone who likes the Dolly Facebook page could well have a Twitter or Instagram or Pinterest account (in that demo they may well have all three) and through the power of social media they probably also read the site, or the mag, or both.

The result is you have anything from a double counting to quintuple counting, and a magazine like Dolly which could have a print/online readership of some 200,000 suddenly skyrockets into the orbit of 800,000 audience impressions. How many teenage girls are there even out there?

To be clear what is happening with OzTAM is very different in that it is under-counting rather than over-counting.

But when one of the most respected and uncontested currencies in the media landscape, which media buyers use to spend more than $3bn on behalf of their clients every year, is suddenly rewriting the rules to suit its masters the industry has reason to be concerned.

The reality is that integrating digital with traditional media formats is difficult, but it’s important to the future of the media industry.

Every media has to reckon with this and when it happens there must be transparency in the process and clear and agreed rules about how it is done.

Nic Christensen is the media and technology editor of Mumbrella

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