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Deep Dive 23 Feb 2021 - 6 min read

'A lack of unity?': TV sector pushes back industry innovation plan; agency frustrations peak as VOZ dilemma drags on

By Josh McDonnell - Senior Writer

The TV industry is facing another mammoth reset after countless delays to its measurement system VOZ and a quiet scrapping of its unified trading platform BuyTV. Network sales bosses have also just pulled the pin on a panel tomorrow outlining a new “TV23” blueprint at the Future of TV Advertising forum. Agencies, advertisers and industry execs are pondering whether TV can do what it needs to - together.

What you need to know:

  • Australia’s TV networks have again set in motion plans to overhaul for innovation.
  • Silently scrapping the previously proposed unified trading platform, BuyTV, the sector is preparing to announce a new roadmap for the future, dubbed “TV23”.
  • TV23 will include a new trading platform, no longer built on Nine’s propriety product 9Galaxy.
  • A number of agency executives have questioned the appetite for real collaboration from TV networks, as the cross-screen measurement project VOZ struggles with deepening delays.
  • TV sales bosses were expected to outline the plans for the TV23 project this week at The Future of TV Advertising Forum but pulled out at the last minute.
  • Agency frustrations are rising. They are looking to third-party and internal measurement alternatives instead of “more oversold promises”.
  • One industry executive says the industry is at risk of being “left behind” and its new tech becoming “outdated before it launches” if quicker action isn’t taken.
  • Others point to legacy network squabbles going back “nearly two decades” as the root cause for the problem.

The TV networks need to be cautious of putting forward anymore changes with too much ambition – learn from the past.

Patrick Darcy, Chief Data & Technology Officer, Dentsu

Screen burn

TV networks have pushed out their industry-wide innovation agenda to 2023 after a series of already announced initiatives – including Virtual Australia (VOZ) and BuyTV – have been delayed or dropped.

The apparent inertia has prompted further debate on whether broadcasters can work together and actually deliver what they have long promised.

Mi3 understands an announcement at tomorrow’s Future of TV Advertising forum on an initiative called TV23 has been pulled and a keynote panel of broadcast sales chiefs dropped.

One industry insider says the about turn suggests a “lack of unity” amongst the networks. Another agency leader quips the panel has been pulled “because there’s not much they have to say”.

But perhaps its a smart move from TV execs. Announcing new initiatives before managing to fulfil old promises may not go down too well.

Since industry group ThinkTV launched in 2016, broadcast networks have talked a collaborative A-game. Together they would develop harmonised linear and digital viewing and audience measurement, back-end automaton, user data access and a trading platform to better compete with the digital giants. 

But nearly five years on, media buyers are frustrated with a lack of progress and say they are already starting to adopt alternatives to a common broadcast industry-led program. 

They think it might be foolhardy to try another grand initiative.

“The networks need to be cautious of putting forward anymore changes with too much ambition – learn from the past," says Dentsu Chief Data & Technology Officer Patrick Darcy. While he thinks T23 "could be an exciting proposition if they move on it quickly and effectively" agencies are dealing with more immediate concerns.

“There’s other products out there already and as agencies, we all have our own workarounds in reporting back to clients on-screen investments,” adds Darcy.

Another agency executive thinks the networks are again “putting the cart before the horse”.

“We haven’t got the measurement or trading currency sorted yet. I understand a new platform is an exciting premise, but it could be another element that only brings ongoing delays,” they said.

Agencies say the new platforms and services they are tapping beyond the TV industry’s announced but not delivered programs include third-party data providers like Samba and Adgile.

Although these kind of products do not provide a total TV viewing picture, they at least partially fill the vacuum left by collective network inertia.

“We were promised a post-campaign reporting tool in VOZ and eventually a trading platform that would utilise that currency – we’re still not there,” says Publicis Media Commercial Director Jodi Fraser.

“If there are other options available, agencies will use them because clients are willing to invest in BVOD – but there needs to be a clear reporting method.”

They’re now saying 2023, but look at the past two decades and other similar efforts such as the Electronic Transactions Hub - that took eight years before it was canned.

Media exec

Fail faster?

At the centre of the tensions are the two major initiatives launched by ThinkTV and the TV networks, VOZ and BuyTV.

BuyTV was conceived as a unified trading platform for the industry, announced more than two years ago at Nine’s annual upfront event and later confirmed by ThinkTV.

The platform was supposed to use Nine’s propriety automated trading system – Galaxy – to allow agencies to buy both BVOD and linear TV. However, after months of ominous silence the project has been sunk. Network 10 and Foxtel “shot the hole in the boat,” according to one exec, though the blame game is rarely binary.

“It was another squabble that ultimately makes no sense for the industry,” said one industry executive familiar with the scenario. “Nine’s Michael Stephenson had the right idea but there was no way rival networks were going to go for it – which only causes more delays.

“They’re now saying 2023, but look at the past two decades and other similar efforts such as the Electronic Transactions Hub - that took eight years before it was canned.”

Three years, $20m

VOZ was first announced nearly three years ago. It promised a “gold standard” and “world-first” cross-screen measurement solution for advertisers, incorporating viewing across millions of connected devices plus minute-by-minute screen behaviour of individuals in OzTAM TV panel homes. $20 million later it is yet to land.

An understandable six-month pause in 2020 due to Covid impacts was communicated to the industry. An update was promised by November. Agencies say it never came.

“I understand the frustrations of the agencies, but we don’t want to give them a dataset they can’t use to the best of its capabilities, it would be a waste,” OzTAM CEO Doug Peiffer says.

“We’re stitching four currencies together and that takes time, especially given the Covid delays. Agencies are working with external partners, with the expectation it is all available in July.”

Those external partners include media and trading solutions providers such as Landsberry & James and TVmap to ingest the data into media agency systems. The word is that the dataset is so big – akin to a year's worth of OzTam linear data per day of VOZ – ingestion may be a challenge.

Still, the data can only be used as a planning and optimisation tool for linear and BVOD campaigns, something agency executives have told Mi3 is "beyond frustrating" and “ineffective”. Instead, they are still awaiting the full post-campaign reporting capabilities.

Alternative options

Dentsu’s Patrick Darcy says while there is no doubt industry drums are beating louder, it’s important that VOZ isn’t seen as “the silver bullet” that solves every issue.

Either way, he says brands can’t afford to wait for another initiative that “over-promises and under-delivers”.

“We know that VOZ is slow to get where it needs to be, but agencies need to be aware that there are other solutions out there and clients certainly aren’t going to wait around for some ‘ultimate solution’,” Darcy says.

“VOZ will be a game-changer but in the meantime, we are telling brands to find alternatives because you can’t sit around and hope these complexities are solved all at once.”

Privately, some industry executives argue the idea of agencies and advertisers using alternate third party providers or proxy measurement systems to OzTAM and VOZ is duct-taping, because they did not give a clear view of both linear and digital video.  

Agencies, though, are also open to other options in the interim.

Publicis’ Fraser says an alternative would be for TV networks to provide the raw data of people viewing BVOD each day in a “viewer thousands” measurement, for instance.

“At the moment we only get BVOD data as minutes watched from VPM and we can’t trade on that – there’s no such thing as cost per minutes watched,” Fraser says.

“An alternative would be to provide us with, in thousands, the number of people watching BVOD across an entire day. They don’t even need to go show-by-show, just a rough idea of the people actually viewing a day.”

The things that Nine, Seven, 10 and Foxtel are doing are both world-leading and not easy to do – but the wider industry should know that we have a clear agenda. It will be delivered.

Michael Stephenson, Chief Sales Officer, Nine

United front

While doubts grow about their ability to collaborate, the networks certainly present a united front in response to criticism.

Seven Chief Revenue Officer Kurt Burnette urged buyers to consider the overall value of projects such as VOZ.

“There’s nothing like this anywhere else in the world and while there is frustration around how long it has taken, ultimately it's coming at a benefit to the wider industry,” Burnette says.

“No other alternative methods exist and if they do, they’re not reflective of the total TV audience that VOZ will eventually represent. So we need to remain patient, it will work.”

Ten’s Chief Sales Officer Rod Prosser disputes suggestions of network disharmony, insisting the sector has “never been more focused” on the future of TV.

“We’re working towards something that is going to not only improve TV in the short-term but secure it for years going forward,” Prosser says.

“The networks are completely aligned on what needs to be done and are going to be working extremely close with each stakeholder to ensure the results are world-leading for TV.”

Assertions that broadcasters are not united are “completely wrong”, according to Nine's sales chief, Michael Stephenson.

“The things that Nine, Seven, 10 and Foxtel are doing are both world-leading and not easy to do – but the wider industry should know that we have a clear agenda. Whether it’s cross-platform measurement and trading, investment into technology or simply making it easier to transact television – these will be delivered.”

Sarah Keith, Managing Director at Paykel Media, says presenting a harmonious front is always important in TV, but pointed to tension in recent BVOD reporting issues as an example that networks may not always see eye-to-eye.

The stoush between Seven, Nine and Foxtel saw each network issuing different figures for their respective BVOD platforms, using different benchmarks and time periods to justify their claims.

“Networks claim number one, they’ve always done it, but this is where I think a platform like VOZ is desperately needed, to avoid this split reporting and project a uniform approach to the future of TV,” Keith says.

“We know the TV sector is aligned on advancing – but it needs to constantly project that image to the wider industry, otherwise they will get trapped in the same cycle as always.”

Foxtel Media declined to comment.

New roadmap

While TV networks might not be ready to talk about TV23 on stage, Mi3 understands stage one of the TV23 project is underway.

The first part of the project involves surveying the industry, particularly agencies and brands, on what they most need from the TV industry.

The information gathering exercise is understood to focus primarily on the new trading platform, to be developed by a third party.

It is understood ThinkTV and its stakeholders are also working on other announcements and projects that will be revealed throughout the year under what’s tipped as a “new roadmap for television”.

But the firm message from buyers is that the networks and their partners need to get the show on the road.

“The success of the project boils down consistency. The networks need to ensure that what they promise, they deliver,” says Dentsu's Patrick Darcy.

“Each time something like this happens and there’s a delay or a blockage, it’s the clients that ultimately suffer.”

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