Mark Ritson: Comparing TV audiences to digital views is utter nonsense

There is an urgent need to translate digital views into TV audiences and vice versa otherwise brands will continue to be misled by thin digital video viewing estimates.


In recent weeks it’s been hard to avoid the digital versus TV war that looks set to dominate marketing. At the start of May, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki fired first when she told advertisers that YouTube was now reaching “more 18 to 49 year-olds during prime time than the top 10 US TV shows combined”. A day later Joan Gillman, Time Warner’s COO, hit back with the results of a study showing that if YouTube were a TV show it would rank 354th in the nation for audience share.

So who is telling the truth? Crucially, it all depends on your definition of what constitutes an audience. If you look only at reach and ignore time spent or use the “digital views” approach that claims an audience member as soon as they encounter three seconds of a partial, soundless video like Facebook or Instagram, then digital video is the clear winner.

If, however, you dive deeper and measure an audience on a minute by minute basis and then publish the average figure for the duration of the video the results change dramatically. Gillman’s relegation of YouTube to 354th is accurate if you measure audiences on how many you captured per minute rather than how many momentarily glanced your way at any point.

Until recently these distinctions did not actually matter. Digital video used their system and the TV channels used theirs. But as the digital ambitions of the social media platforms have grown and their appetite for big brand advertising has become bigger, the battle between TV and digital video has suddenly intensified and, as usual in marketing, we fight over metrics.

I’ve always assumed a certain bullshit quotient with all viewing numbers. Even from the earliest days of BARB the difference between room population and an actual advertising audience was always a bit of a dodgy ratio. But this harmless handful of bullshit sprinkled liberally across TV audience numbers has paled into insignificance versus the three forklift trucks of horseshit that now arrive, free of charge, with most digital video audience estimates.

Last October, for example, Yahoo claimed its livestream of an American Football game attracted 15 million viewers. That’s an impressive debut given the average TV game garners 18 million. But this is not an apples to apples comparison, it is an apples to orange skins stuffed with bullshit comparison.

While 15 million different people did indeed, at some point, briefly encounter the coverage, the average audience per minute for the livestream was only 1.6 million viewers – less than a 10th of the typical TV audience.

It was a similar story when ESPN claimed that more than 115 million people watched the 2014 World Cup from Brazil on digital devices versus a measly 4.6 million on TV. But when you hold that number up to the standard of an average audience per minute those multi-millions turn into a digital tournament audience of 300,000 or about 7% of those watching on TV.

Every time you see a digital video “audience” it is crucial to query the metric being used to define it. For example, we know thanks to BT that the Champions League final at the weekend was “watched” in this country by a total of 4.3 million people on TV and a further 1.8 million on digital platforms. Yet BT used BARB data for TV – so someone had to tune in for a least 30 seconds in a minute to be counted as viewer – while the digital figure is a “unique view” and “not done on time like BARB”.

That same dynamic will play out this summer as the BBC’s redesigned Top Gear with Chris Evans will compete with Jeremy Clarkson and company’s new offering The Grand Tour on Amazon Prime Instant Video. Despite poor reviews, Evans has already boasted on Twitter of the show’s 4.4 million-strong audience on Sunday evening.

It’s highly unlikely that Clarkson will be able to compete; Amazon Prime is thought to have less than two million subscribers in the UK. But I would not be surprised if a massive digital “audience” in excess of five million miraculously “watches” the first show in September irrespective of the pesky constraint of reality. Start backing those forklifts up.

What’s urgently needed is a media Rosetta Stone to help translate digital views into TV audiences and vice versa. It’s here that the supremely impressive Steve Hasker becomes marketing’s only real hope. Hasker is the global president of Nielsen and has spearheaded the company’s ‘Total Audience Measurement’ approach. The tool, newly launched this year in America, now enables advertisers to see a complete breakdown of video audiences across viewing platforms using a single, comparable measuring system.

No news yet on what the results tell us but this is one audience associated with digital views that actually is engaged.

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  1. Chris Ellis 6 Jun 2016

    The current measures are in no way comparable, but surely the most important metric would be at least a proxy for advertising effectiveness? I don’t really care whether a consumer watches 1 hour of TV and 5 minutes of video, as long as advertising on the those media has some effect. TV is typically bought by GRP or other ratings, and advertisers generally know what their own effect-per-point metrics are. If they could get the same effect per [insert appropriate unit] of digital then we could get some kind of very rough comparison. It’s a bit like TV and radio – they are not the same at all, but at least you can work out a rule of thump for how many radio spots you need for an equivalent TV spot.

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