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From AJR,   October/November 2008  issue

Measuring Across Platforms   

NBC uses a new index to determine the total size of its audience.


By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

Not even a nerd would watch beach volleyball on a small screen, given an alternative. This and the other summer Olympic sports are meant to be experienced on HDTV, while munching snacks on the sofa or maybe doing something nerdy like writing a magazine column.

So it was no surprise when NBC's new Total Audience Measurement Index (TAMi) reported that about 93 percent of Olympics content was watched on the broadcast network or one of NBC Universal's cable channels. Although it'd be hard to think of an event more favorable to television, TV networks and not just NBC found occasion to rejoice that TV is still the king of all media.

But let's assume NBC had a higher purpose than fluffing the egos of TV execs. The TAMi was announced in July as a breakthrough in cross-platform audience measurement that would combine TV, Web and mobile audiences in one number. Using the Olympics as a test, it counted viewership on all of NBCU's TV and cable networks plus its Web and mobile users and video-on-demand customers.

You'd think someone would've done this before, but not really. Coming up with the TAMi number involved combining the reports of several different measurement systems: Nielsen for TV, Omniture for Web and mobile, and Rentrak for video on demand. Metrics for the different platforms are often calculated and described differently; it's not easy to tie audience numbers together in a way that makes sense.

One of the things NBC hoped to gain from the new tool was evidence of how the various platforms work together if they do to drive viewership across the board. Another report by IAG Research also looked at the effectiveness of advertisements that run during Olympics coverage, claiming significant increases in brand and message recall over normal prime-time programming. Although most of its $1 billion in ad inventory was sold prior to the start of the Olympics, NBC wanted to show advertisers that their money was well-spent. With the 2010 Vancouver winter games around the corner, the 2008 TAMi and IAG data should prove valuable. (It had better; NBC paid $894 million for 2008 Olympics broadcast rights and $1.18 billion for London in 2012.)

Here are some of the TAMi findings released by NBC:

Web and mobile viewers pushed average daily audience from about 89 million for TV and video on demand alone to 96 million. The Web attracted 6.6 percent of all traffic; mobile less than 1 percent.

75.5 million video streams were downloaded from NBCOlympics.com, compared with a combined 10.8 million for the 2004 Athens summer games and 2006 Torino winter games.

NBC declared the Beijing Olympics the most-viewed event in TV history, with 214 million viewers across the 17 days of coverage. Eighty-six percent of U.S. households tuned in.

There are many ways to read this data, all of them pretty good for NBC: Record-breaking Web traffic on one hand, fantastic TV ratings on the other. NBC Universal research president Alan Wurtzel announced to the media that television was still "the mothership" and that multiplatform offerings throughout the day were helping to drive interest in Olympic content on TV.

Fox asserts that TV viewing played an even greater role than mere audience numbers suggest, according to TVWeek. Tallying the time spent watching video on each platform, Fox maintained that 99.7 percent of actual viewing time was given to television.

Fair enough. But it would be a gigantic, bury-your-head-in-the-sand mistake to come away with a belief that traditional media are as strong as ever, or might rebound from these tough times. The Olympics are primed for TV in every way: They are a communal event of major national interest, featuring content that does not lend itself to snackable, small-screen viewing. (Except for short clips of finish-line moments or when there's no TV nearby; 75.5 million streams are nothing to sneeze at.) You'll see the same overwhelming preference for TV around the Super Bowl, dramatic breaking news and highly-rated entertainment programs. That stuff will yield strong audience and advertising numbers for years to come.

On the other hand, when it comes to sports scores, weather updates, community information, daily news and viral video, and of course social activities, you'll see a much stronger shift toward Web and mobile. Those are the areas where TV's grip is slipping, particularly with younger audiences.

NBC plans to extend TAMi to news, sports and entertainment programming this fall. That might provide better insight into why and when people choose one platform over another, and how the platforms are used together. There's nothing stopping any media outlet from integrating its various audience reports into a simple matrix that tells a spin-free story.

While not exactly a fair contest between old and new media, NBC's Beijing experience was a moment in the sun for traditional media companies that don't see a clear path to success on the Internet. It shows us what television can be, when all of the elements are right. Moving forward, this approach should also give us guidance when the deck is stacked the other way.