Boxed Out of Set-Top Data


One big reason set-top box data
isn’t becoming widely used as a measure
of TV advertising is that cable,
satellite and telco TV operators simply
aren’t willing to share that data.

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
powerful tool for analyzing actual
TV viewing on a second-by-second basis.

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 results? The CRE was stonewalled
by half of them, including nine of the
10 biggest pay TV companies, with Cox
Communications 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, released last

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 (formerly TNS Media).

Nielsen naturally 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.

Other reasons, according to the
CRE, included the position that there
was “nothing in it for them”; concern
about raising the profile of set-top box
data and stirring up privacy concerns;
and that procedures were still in development.

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

To solve that second problem, though,
the pay-TV providers will first need to be
more forthcoming about set-top data —
and open their kimonos.

Main findings from the Council for Research Excellence’s
survey of set-top box data:

Nine of the 10 largest pay TV distributors declined to participate; Cox was the

All set-top data being collected includes channel-change information; other
metrics include muting, program guide, VOD, DVR playback and trick-mode use.

“Virtually no uniformity” among aggregators on the way data is obtained
and processed.

Frequency of set-top data uploads varies but is generally daily or more frequently.