Wolk’s Week in Review: The future of the Open Internet is…Streaming?, Nielsen is measuring FASTs

Wolk's Week In Review

1. The Future Of The Open Internet Is…Streaming?

The digital media world has been all abuzz these last weeks after The Trade Desk released a list of what it called “The Very Best of the Open Internet” which includes the 100 “most popular and engaging digital publishers across all digital channels.”

(The “open internet” being that part of the internet not closed off by the walled gardens of Google and Facebook. Those digital guys do love a good extendable metaphor.)

But here’s where it gets interesting. 66 of those top 100 “digital publishers” were what we call “TV networks and streaming services.”

For realz.

The top 15 are Hulu, Disney+, Max, ESPN, Spotify, Peacock TV, CNN, National Geographic, NBC, Fox, TF1 (it’s an international list, it seems), ABC, HGTV, Paramount+ and Discovery+.

That’s a whole lot of streaming TV.

Why it matters

Where it gets interesting is that The Trade Desk says their criteria are “advertising quality (such as viewability, ads to content ratio and refresh rate), reach, decisioned programmatic inventory, supply path efficiency, and distribution quality.”

Which, perhaps unsurprisingly, is pretty much the same argument TV ad sales teams make to brands to try and get them to shift money from digital to TV. Not “CTV” mind you, just “TV.”

Because there’s a very strong argument to be made for lumping all those streaming TV companies, the ones that dominate the list, together with traditional TV companies, the ones that dominate cable boxes.

Said argument going something like this: “Consumers say they’re watching the game on TV. Not ‘I’m watching the game on CTV,’ or ‘I’m watching the game on streaming TV.’ And definitely not ‘I’m watching the game on the open internet.’”

So there’s that.

Now The Trade Desk’s overall point is well taken—there are a lot of crappy websites out there getting ads from big companies, and the surfeit of MFA (made for advertising) websites does not help, as Mike Shields explained a few weeks back.

But the answer to that, if you are actually interested in seeing “the open internet” succeed, would seem to be to make a list of less crappy websites, not a list of streaming TV services and TV networks that also have URLs.

First off, there is a world of difference between a 30 second TV commercial watched on a big screen TV during a popular Hulu original like Only Murders In The Building, and a banner on an “open internet” website—even a banner on the Hulu website.

The argument goes something like this: people remember TV commercials they saw 20 years ago. They barely remember banners they saw 20 minutes ago.

Second, there’s the surrounding content, the aforementioned original series. That is exactly the sort of content an advertiser who’s just spent $20 million to produce a new TV commercial wants to run against.

And while the New York Times (number 51 on the list) is a well respected newspaper, running a banner ad against one of its news stories (or even Wordle) has nowhere near the same impact as running an TV commercial on a Paramount+ original series.

So there’s all that and it makes it sound a lot like The Trade Desk is trying to push any sort of television delivered via streaming (as opposed to cable) into the digital bucket.

Which is something that the television industry has been pushing back against for some time now and leads to all sorts of confusion around where ad dollars are being spent and all sorts of alarmist headlines about the alleged death of TV.

The Trade Desk list is fairly amusing though, because as someone who has been around for a while, it looks a whole lot like a big brand’s media plan from 1987.

Those were the days when big brands bought network prime time and cable. And supplemented it with print advertising in high visibility publications like the New York Times and the Atlantic.

Somewhere along the way, brands got distracted by the promise that digital could tell them exactly what became of every ad dollar they spent. And so they fell into the trap of chasing audiences around the internet. Hitting them up with ads on random sites with low CPMs and even lower-veracity metrics.

An entire industry grew up around that premise, only it proved to be fairly destructive for many brands, as hitting consumers on low rent sites did not reflect well on the brands’ reputation. 

And now all those digital players are trying to get into the TV game, pedaling as fast as they can to distance themselves from a world rife with fraud, distrust and the aforementioned MFA websites.

And calling Hulu the best site on “the open internet.”


There are a couple of key takeaways from all these shenanigans however.

First and foremost, is that this is good news for TV, American TV in particular.

You see, the US television industry got used to 30+ years of insane profit margins thanks to carriage and retrans fees.

And those fees do not exist on streaming.

There was a theory that brands would pay more money for fewer, better-targeted ads. 

Which was true, only most brands' definition of “more money” was poles apart from TV companies’ definition.

Only now, as ad spend looks to return to TV, it seems like there may be more of a meeting of the minds on what “more money” means, which is good news for TV.

Second is that the “Is YouTube TV?” issue is going to get even bigger.

(For those of you who have not been paying attention, more people watch YouTube on their actual TV sets than watch Netflix. And while Google claims that proves that YouTube is actually “TV”, the rest of the industry is insistent that it proves no such thing because YouTube is part of a walled garden. Not the Open Internet. And inside walled gardens, ads can be skipped, content has no quality control and measurement is largely done on a “trust us to grade our own homework” basis.

So there’s all that, and the resolution is not going to be pretty.

What you need to do about it

If you are the ads sales group at a TV network, know that The Trade Desk is not going to be the first ad tech company to come for you. That many other ad tech companies are going to try and steal as much of your thunder as they can with the dual claims that programmatic is much more cost effective and that they are better positioned to give you an omnichannel ad buy. 

So be prepared with answers and brush up on your digital skills. Which, for many of you, are sorely lacking.

If you are an ad agency, you’re going to actually have to figure out what “we’re video agnostic” means to you.

Because right now it mostly means “we have TV teams and programmatic teams and every so often they talk to each other.”

If it were my dollar, I’d make sure my TV and streaming teams were one and the same and make sure that those teams also took social and digital media into account when spending their clients’ money. 

If you are covering the industry, in any way, shape or form, you need to be careful about your definitions and how accurate they are. So when you see a stat about money “going away from TV to digital” you need to ask yourself, “What exactly do they consider ‘digital’ and what exactly do they consider 'TV' and do those definitions make sense and if not, why not?”

If you are a big brand with a mainstream audience and want to spend your money wisely, maybe go back and find a media plan from 1984 or so. It will, of course, need to be tweaked some, but the basic premise—that using a combination of TV and high profile text-based content (e.g. The New York Times) is the best way to reach your audience, 

Especially when Plan B is “track the audience around the open internet and hit them up with an ad whenever they pause to take a breath.”

Best thing is, you can use that list of the “100 top sites on the open internet” as your guidebook.

2. Nielsen Is Measuring FASTs

Lionsgate announced this week that Nielsen would be providing metrics for its Moviesphere FAST channel.

TPTB seemed to take this announcement at face value, which resulted in multiple fanboi headlines about “Nielsen getting into the FAST game!”

Knowing a bit more about how all this works however, our reaction was more along the lines of “WT actual F?”

Because glaringly missing from any of these glowing reports was any indication of how this was actually being calculated.

As in what exactly was Nielsen measuring and who was letting them measure it? Because FAST channels, even ones from Lionsgate, are not exactly free range.

They are beholden to FAST services, the aggregators, e.g., the ones actually herding the cats, and it’s not clear where they fit into this deal and what is in it for them.

Why it matters

So let’s start off with that foundational distinction: there are about a dozen FAST services and they aggregate a broad array of content, both linear and on-demand. But that unlike cable operators, they do not all row in the same direction.

Tubi, for instance, has been all about on demand since Day 1 and their interface and viewership stats reflect that. Pluto is the mirror image, and everyone else is somewhere in between.

Key Point A being they all have linear and on demand content because that is what consumers want, and Key Point B being that they largely do whatever they feel like in terms of programming, shuffling schedules, creating their own bespoke linear channels and the like.

Meaning that it’s not like AMC on cable, where the same shows run at the same time across the board.

I spoke with a number of people this week, all of whom were equally baffled by this announcement.

The best guess anyone could come up with is that Nielsen is going to use whatever stats it uses for The Gauge to measure Moviesphere, but that was followed by “are there really enough people watching Moviesphere to get an accurate measurement?” 

Only three of the main FAST services actually make it onto the Gauge— Tubi, The Roku Channel and Pluto—and that is for the entire service. Not one of the hundreds of channels on the service. 

If there is one thing I hear almost constantly from people who own FAST channels it is that viewership data is extremely hard to come by. And that when it is provided, it is not even close to standardized.

The owners need that data for everything from setting ad rates to measuring ad effectiveness to making better programming decisions, so it’s not as if there's not a need for what Nielsen says it is doing.

It’s just that it is unclear how Nielsen and Lionsgate are planning to do it and how the aggregators feel about them doing it, what’s in it for them and are they worried that all those other FAST channel owners are going to start hitting them up for viewing stats.

I will end by noting that the lack of standardization on FAST extends to how deals are put together—this is not late 90s cable—and so it is possible that Lionsgate, being a major studio, was able to negotiate a much better deal than most, with guarantees of fealty to their programming schedule and full transparency around viewership and ad loads.

Because anything is possible. 

Not necessarily likely. 

But possible.

What you need to do about it

If you are Nielsen, you need to explain just how you are measuring FAST channels. Because the audience is quite skeptical (even if the press is not) yet if they actually thought you could give them what they wanted—accurate measurement across all of the FAST services—they’d be beating a path to your door.

If you are the FAST services, I suspect it would be in all of your interests to create some form of standardized measurement for all your content—linear, live and on-demand. This would make advertisers very happy, increase yield rates, help eliminate those “We’ll Be Back” slates and make the companies you get your content from much, much happier.

And remember, if you don’t do it, someone else will.

That much I can say for sure.

Want to be up to speed about what’s on the horizon for free ad-supported streaming TV (FAST)? Join Alan Wolk and a lineup of industry leaders for TVREV’s Future of FAST Supersession June 24 at the StreamTV Show in Denver. Register today to hear the latest on the state of FAST, detailing what you need know, why it matters, and what you need to do about it.

Alan Wolk is co-founder and lead analyst at the consulting firm TV[R]EV. He is the author of the best-selling industry primer, Over The Top: How The Internet Is (Slowly But Surely) Changing The Television Industry. Wolk frequently speaks about changes in the television industry, both at conferences and to anyone who’ll listen.

Week in Review is an opinion column. It does not necessarily represent the opinions of StreamTV Insider.