Bit Rate: Set-Top Data Under Lock & Key

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Here's the biggest barrier to set-top box data becoming widely used as a measure of TV advertising: Right now, cable, satellite and telco TV operators -- by and large -- simply aren't willing to share that data.

Todd Spangler

Or even talk about it publicly.

The Council for Research Excellence, a group funded by Nielsen, set out in late 2008 to analyze the state of set-top data and its viability as a mechanism for audience measurement. It's a potentially awesome tool for analyzing actual TV viewing on a second-by-second basis (see Thinking Inside the Box, June 15, 2009).

Over several months last year, the CRE researchers contacted 30 companies and organizations involved (or potentially involved) in collecting, processing or aggregating set-top data and requested that they fill out brief surveys, with assurances that the information would be used anonymously.

The CRE was stonewalled by half of them, including nine of the 10 biggest pay-TV companies, with Cox the sole exception.

"The number of study non-participants is disappointing; it leaves users of STB data in the dark about important methodological and technical issues," the CRE said in its report, available on the CRE's Web site here: http://researchexcellence.com/stbstudy.php.

Those refusing to fill out the surveys: Comcast, DirecTV, Dish Network, Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications, Cablevision Systems, AT&T, Verizon and Bright House Networks.

Also declining to play ball were Rentrak (which has deals with AT&T and Dish to commercialize set-top data) and Kantar Media.

Nielsen (natch) participated, as did TiVo, Google and Canoe Ventures. But, as CRE's report noted, Canoe is not currently processing set-top data.

Why are so many of these companies unwilling to answer a few basic questions?

"Because of competitive pressures and suspicion of motives, there is a considerable reluctance by many companies to reveal detailed information on their procedures," the CRE's report said.

Specifically, one issue was that CRE is a Nielsen-funded group: "Quite a few were suspicious of Nielsen's connection with the CRE, and worried that, despite the guarantees of confidentiality, Nielsen would somehow gain access to their specific responses. This is emphatically not the case," the report's authors wrote.

But there were other reasons, too, according to the CRE, including:

* Some felt there was "nothing in it for them."

* Some said their procedures were still in development, and they did not want to talk about them "at this time."

* In a number of cases, some executives within the company saw the value of such a study and were anxious to cooperate, but were blocked by management, legal or other departments.

* Some said there were "Too many committees asking for [similar] information," referring to groups such as CIMM, Collaborative Alliance, CRE, Starcom Digital Group, etc., and felt the various groups should get together.

* Concern was expressed that publicity about STB data might raise questions with the public about viewer privacy and anonymity.

Besides the lack of industry participation, the other major problem CRE found with set-top data today is that it's nonstandard across distributors and aggregators: "There is virtually no uniformity between aggregators in terms of data obtained or processing rules. Everyone does it differently. There are no standards."

To solve that second problem, though, the pay-TV providers will first need to open their kimonos.

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