Television networks are using data to compete with digital channels

This week, the world’s largest advertisers gathered in New York to get a preview of the major television networks’ content lineups for the coming season and begin making their upfront TV advertising commitments.

Of course, the prevailing wisdom amongst major advertisers is that television spend will be eclipsed by digital spend in 2017 because of the latter’s superior targeting capabilities and the former’s declining viewership within the contested 18-45 demographic. But mainstream television content can still command massive audiences — up to 10MM viewers for a single program — and thus remains an attractive medium for budget allocation.

And some big television networks are attempting to address the advertising data divide that separates television and digital. In March, it was announced that Turner, Viacom, and Fox are collaborating on a data platform that will allow advertisers to target specific viewer segments based on parameters that go beyond what has traditionally been made available: age and gender. The alliance is a dramatic nod to the challenges that television networks face in competing with the granularity of data available to digital (especially mobile) advertisers: these companies are competitors and shouldn’t otherwise, absent the existential threat of the growing convenience and performance of digital advertising, want to coordinate efforts.

The platform is called “Open A.P.” and will aggregate viewership data across the three networks to allow advertisers to understand where and when they can reach their desired demographics. The platform is being built and audited by Accenture, the IT auditing firm, and the three founding members of the consortium have invited other members to take part.

Will Open A.P. abate the flow of ad spend away from television and onto digital? Possibly in the short term, although the truly worrying trend for television networks should probably be the growing popularity of OTT video services, especially on mobile: targeting is more or less moot when there are no viewers.

One big problem with Open A.P. is that, while it standardizes the definition of audience segments, buys against those segments (which include negotiation and execution) still need to be made on a network-by-network basis, whereas the process of media buying is mostly automated for digital channels.

Buying TV advertising can take days, whereas digital campaigns can be launched in minutes; likewise, digital campaigns can mostly be monitored in real time, while results for television buys generally aren’t made available until after the campaign has been completed. For digital-first advertisers, these aren’t small concessions, but for major television advertisers, this effort to bring more audience data to the buying process might delay, if not completely stem, a drastic budget transfer.