Mark Ritson: Dodgy video metrics prove TV is way ahead

Why don’t purveyors of online video measure average audience per minute? Because it would reveal they are thousands of times less popular than TV.


The tsunami of bullshit that is digital video continues to head inland, threatening to subsume TV advertising and much of the marketing hinterland in 2017. The bullshit comes not as one single giant flood, but in a series of intermittent waves. Each containing slightly more sewage than the last. Each arriving without challenge or counter from the marketing community. Each biasing marketers against so-called traditional media and in favour of new, hot ‘digital’ alternatives.

Last week it was the coverage of the American presidential election and the promotion of BuzzFeed’s live election night Twitter broadcast. It garnered the now standard fawning headlines from the usual suspects. Adweek noted that “BuzzFeed Didn’t Need TV to Make a Mighty Fine Election Night Show for Millennials”, Reuters claimed “Twitter impresses advertisers with BuzzFeed US election livestream” and Variety drew attention to the “6.8 million total viewers” drawn to the coverage.

BuzzFeed actually went even further and claimed that its broadcast was the “most viewed US election-related live stream on Twitter”, which is somewhat akin to me claiming to be the best looking Cumbrian marketing professor born in 1970 (whose middle name is Blaylock).

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – Facebook’s erroneous video metrics show no one has a clue about digital

At first sight 6.8 million viewers certainly appears an impressive result. But as usual with digital video it’s only impressive if you use ridiculously self-serving horseshit metrics. All we can infer from the 6.8 million is that at some point last Tuesday night for at least three very brief, probably partial, and likely soundless seconds these people chanced upon the coverage on Twitter. When we turn this into a proper measure of viewers, i.e. an average audience per minute, the 6.8 million becomes 165,000.

In American media terms that number equates to what statisticians often refer to as “almost fuck all”. According to Nielsen, 71 million Americans watched the prime.time coverage of election night last week meaning Buzzfeed and Twitter managed to snare a grand total of 0.2% of the viewing population. CNN won the night with 13.3 million viewers, meaning that for every lonely viewer watching the election on Twitter, 80 were watching it on CNN. That’s not to mention the additional 73 watching Fox News or the 67 tuning in on NBC.

6.8 million viewers certainly appears impressive. But as usual with digital video it’s only impressive if you use ridiculously self-serving horseshit metrics.

And for those of you totally addled digital marketers who are now thinking “ah yes but millennials don’t watch TV anymore, they need Twitter”, well you are kind of right: 83% of those watching the election coverage on Twitter were indeed under 35. But that equates to only about 137,000 millennials in total. Given CNN managed to attract 3.2 million millennials to its coverage, that puts that whole argument to bed.

By now, of course, we are used to the digital video shenanigans that use incomparable metrics to perpetuate the myth of growing audiences for digital video and declining ones for TV. We saw it during the World Cup when ESPN claimed an average audience of 4.6 million for its TV coverage and 115 million views for its digital coverage of the tournament. But the 115 million became 300,000 when Nielsen turned it into an average audience per minute.

READ MORE: YouTube takes a swipe at Facebook over silent videos

We saw it during the Olympics when NBC boasted 3.3 billion streams of its digital coverage of the Olympics and tried not to admit this equated to only about 3% of the audience when it became a proper per-minute measure. And we are seeing it with American football, where Twitter’s much heralded broadcasts of NFL games are achieving average audiences of 250,000 compared to the 15 million sad losers who did not get the memo and continue to watch the games on their TV.

Of course those last two paragraphs do something that most media coverage assiduously avoids: they present the TV and digital data side-by-side using the same metric of average audience per minute. Why we continue to obfuscate video audience measures with an apples to oranges approach is beyond me. Can I suggest that if Twitter was getting 50% or 75% of the numbers achieved by TV, rather than a tiny rounding error, they would be promoting their average audiences per minute in flashing 8 foot high inflatable lettering on top of their HQ.

There is something interesting about the reluctance of audiences to get with the programme, leave TV and embrace digital video. Could it be that digital video will struggle to offer the big screen glamour, content expertise and social context that has made TV the dominant medium for the past half century? I smell a real battle in the wind for 2017. One that, for once, Google and Facebook may not be well placed to win. If you can’t beat ‘em buy ‘em may well be the conclusion of the digital duopoly by the end of next year.

As they used to say in the TV game, watch this space.



There are 8 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. David Tate 16 Nov 2016

    I don’t know digital companies like Twitter and Buzzfeed try to compete on the same terms with television in the first place – they should focus on the fact that people don’t consume news in the same way any more. The US election is a perfect example – when I want continued, detailed coverage, I turned to the rolling news channels – but in between (and in fact at times whilst watching TV) I was almost constantly on Twitter, consuming news and opinions from across the spectrum in a way that would be impossible on television, and in fact I saw the result called on Twitter before television. Both mediums have a place, and a very different place at that, so why digital have chosen to fight television is beyond me.

    • Mark ritson 16 Nov 2016

      Yeah. Nice point Dave. Agree they can do different things. But the problem is that for business reasons everyone needs video now – Facebook is jam packed with display, cost per click for search is down for Google, Twitter is …well…Twitter. So they all have to force the transition to more video content in 2017.

  2. David Tate 16 Nov 2016

    Can’t edit, but should have said ‘many people don’t consume…’ rather than just people. Don’t want to be accused of generalising!

  3. Steve Jex 17 Nov 2016

    Another factor in the video vs TV argument is the method of delivery. There’s a world of difference between watching a 3 minute video on YouTube on a specific subject that the viewer has chosen, with an ad attached, and watching live TV on a mobile phone – I don’t think many people do that so therefore the traditional TV ads don’t reach those people. Google have the perfect formula in my opinion – if you want to watch the video you have to at least let the ad run for a few seconds first.
    The other factor is affordability – most of my clients wouldn’t be able to come up with a budget that included TV ads and I wouldn’t want them to because the ROI is unlikely to be anywhere near what we could achieve with a well-placed Facebook ad and a good landing page.

  4. Mark taffler 17 Nov 2016

    We recently broadcast our European championship qualifier against Greece. 2.1m people enjoyed Table Tennis that night.

    For us as a less traditional sport and rights holder it is vital for the growth of our sport that we innovate with distribution channels. Cost per viewer was 0.03p vs 56p per viewer on ITV in march

    The immediate challenge was ” they’ve only watched it for 7 seconds ‘ – firstly incorrect. Facebook live allows you to see how many people have watched for the minimum qualifying period of 10 seconds and it splits it out and shows you how many watched for longer concurrent viewers ad infinitum. The analytics are impressive

    Conversely no one can tell exactly how long someone has watched sport on TV.

    The paradigm is shifting. It is actually TV which is now second screen.

    We will be doing it again!

    Great article

  5. Freddy Kanter 18 Nov 2016

    You only have to watch The Apprentice to see the kind of shit that ‘trendy’ marketers waffle. They inflict utter embarrassment on our profession. As noted, digital TV has a role to play, just not the one they want…yet.

  6. David Ward 18 Nov 2016

    I think the audience for digital media is more used to short, bite-sized, summary-type video content, so live streaming doesn’t really make sense. Besides, why would you sit peering into a tiny screen, with the battery of your smartphone heating up by the minute, when TV does it inherently better?

    Then again, when an event that is highly relevant to the millenial segment is live streamed exclusively on a service like Twitter – e.g. live streaming of Selena Gomez getting married. – then that will become its defining moment and the floodgates will open.

  7. Dave Lancaster 21 Nov 2016

    Something else to consider is that viewing habits aren’t as singular as they once were (and as you noted attention spans are also a factor). It’s quite possible that some will be browsing social media at the same time as watching regular TV, effectively giving a double hit on the ratings. For YouTube something else to think about is how videos are cast from mobile to television therefore giving the big screen regular TV experience but via a mobile platform

Leave a comment