Comcast 'TV Warehouse' To Track Clicks

1/09/2009 7:00 PM Eastern

Comcast has sketched out plans for a gigantic database called “TV Warehouse,” able to store a full year of statistics gathered from digital set-tops in more than 16 million households nationwide, according to an industry executive familiar with the project.

TV Warehouse, envisioned as having a massive 500 Terabytes of storage, would then feed up to a database even broader in scope operated by Canoe Ventures, the advanced-advertising venture formed by Comcast and five other large MSOs.

The idea: to give advertisers an enormous set of actual viewing metrics — showing exactly what millions of cable customers watched and when — as opposed to representative samples.

Canoe CEO David Verklin has said the venture expects in the near future to provide viewing metrics for 32 million U.S. cable households, representing about 57 million set-tops.

“One of the first things we must do is bring set-top data into the marketplace and make that the currency,” Verklin said last November on a panel at the CTAM Summit.

Detailed audience measurement metrics, in Verklin's view, are crucial to Canoe's aims to sell interactive-TV services and deliver ads that are “addressable” to individual set-tops. The realization of Comcast's TV Warehouse, or something like it at each of the member MSOs, will be an important step to get to that goal.

But it's still early in the game. For one thing, Canoe has not indicated how it expects bring its set-top data to market — whether it will sell it directly or through a third party.

Comcast senior director of corporate communications Jenni Moyer said it would be premature to comment on the MSO's activities regarding set-top data collection as part of Canoe. “We're in early discussions with Canoe,” she said. A Canoe spokeswoman also declined comment.

Analysts say the industry's set-top mega-database is not likely to be comprehensive for some time. That's because of the complexity involved in compiling data from hundreds of different headends, as well as the reluctance of cable operators to make any changes to their networks that could disrupt service.

“I doubt they'll be able to do it nationwide out of the gate,” said Tim McElgunn, chief analyst for Pike & Fischer's broadband advisory services. “To really get to the endgame of this is huge — that would be absolutely massive.”

Time Warner Cable, in a statement, acknowledged that there is “extensive work to do on behalf of the MSOs to support the anonymization, storage, analysis and reporting of data as a potential business. In addition, there is also extensive work to do on the part of Canoe to build/manage/outsource the robust and secure data center required to handle the terabytes of STB data.”

Charter Communications' Los Angeles system last year began supplying set-top data to Nielsen Media Research, which analyzes viewing patterns of 330,000 set-tops and provides that research to its customers. Charter has not announced specific plans to extend that to other markets.

“We continue to work with data partners in Los Angeles to better understand STB tuning metrics,” Charter senior vice president of advertising sales Jim Heneghan said, in a statement. “We support Canoe's objective of scaling audience research for our advertising partners.”

To McElgunn, the biggest challenge for the cable industry isn't pulling together a 500-Terabyte database but addressing customer concerns about privacy. He cited the outcry over NebuAd, a startup whose system served up Internet ads based on the Web sites visited by users. NebuAd had been working with Charter and other operators, but after inquiries by a U.S. House of Representatives committee, the cable companies dropped their ad-targeting trials.

“It's going to be very, very important for these guys to not overstep their boundaries,” McElgunn said, referring to the MSOs. “They are very aware of the privacy implications.”

Comcast's privacy policy informs subscribers that the company may monitor their activities, although without retaining any personally identifiable information.

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