NBCU's Wurtzel: More Research Dollars Needed, 'Single Source' Faces Challenges

Alan Wurtzel's intellect and visibility can hold an audience pretty well. Yet, to make sure he was heard this week, NBCUniversal's president of research called on Dan Burke and God. (Even though Burke is the father of his current boss, he did not equate the two.)

In a speech at a cross-platform measurement event, Wurtzel not surprisingly urged industry executives to invest more in research. But, then just two days after NBCU announced an initiative to pursue a “single source” metric for cross-platform viewing during this summer's Olympics, Wurtzel wondered if this “holy grail” is “realistically attainable in the new media world.”

Separately, he called on the industry to move away from relying on data about who watched and shift towards who watched and what did they buy. Behavioral targeting methods are needed – fast.

Harkening back to his tenure at ABC, Wurtzel recalled telling Dan Burke, the president of Capital Cities/ABC, how frustrated he was with what Nielsen charged. Burke – father of NBCU CEO Steve Burke -- brushed him off, saying more needs to be spent on research.

Fast forward to today and Wurtzel isn’t keen on tossing money Nielsen’s way, but he’s a believer in Burke’s broader point: better measurement isn’t going to come cheap.

“We won’t get anywhere just whining about the problem … considering how critical measurement is for the industry, we need to spend more if we hope to produce higher quality ratings,” Wurtzel said at the event backed partly by the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement (CIMM).

With his “if you can’t measure it, you can’t sell it” shibboleth, Wurtzel is credited with being the driving force behind the development of CIMM -- which seeks to galvanize networks, advertisers and agencies to work together to upgrade TV and video measurement. (On Wednesday, he made a soft pitch for more entities to join CIMM, which would give the group more resources.)

Some might equate the respect Wurtzel gets in the research community to what football coach Nick Saban commands in Alabama. And while Wurtzel said “radical” changes may be needed in measurement, he sounded like a coach when he urged putting points on the board now.

“I’m not saying we forsake striving for quality and excellence ... but, there’s a point where we need to balance a goal of ‘gold standard excellence’ with the ability to ‘get stuff done,’ he said.

If Wurtzel's speech was inspiring to that point, it wasn't really alarming. That came when he cast doubt on whether “single-source” measurement of video consumption across TV, computers and mobile devices could be achieved. NBCU has Google and comScore on board to help gauge that with this summer’s London Games.

“It’s been estimated that a single-source panel that could effectively measure all platforms might require close to a million respondents due to the enormous fractionalization that’s occurring in the use of video and the Internet,” Wurtzel said.

(The Olympics initiative could offer insight into another solution. And, any data can inform decisions on programming and consumer behavior.)

Getting to a “single-source” metric might require use of set-top-box (STB) data, but Wurtzel noted there are hurdles with that. The same goes for “data fusion -- linking together multiple databases to provide a ‘measurement virtual reality.’”

“It sounds great on paper, the only problem is it doesn’t always work – at least not yet,” Wurtzel said.

Still, even if he is dubious, Wurtzel has not lost hope. Speaking about CIMM before, he suggested one of its goals is to search for talent in Silicon Valley garages who might have solutions, but no Madison Avenue contacts. On Wednesday, he urged that mission to continue.

Then, came God. Apparently, she didn’t anoint Nielsen techniques as gospel.

“Maybe there is a way to tackle the single-source problem using an entirely new methodology,” Wurtzel said. “God didn’t say we had to use people meters attached to a television set.”

Speaking of Nielsen and religious figures, Wurtzel referenced another one while encouraging the industry to emphasize data that links viewing with purchasing.

“Last I noticed Moses didn’t come down from the mountain with tablets (the old kind) that read: ‘Though shalt report households and demographics,'” he said.

Marketers care less about the age, sex and income level of viewers and more about their behavior – do they enjoy soft drinks or love luxury cars, etc. While shopping card data, Acxiom and Experian can help, Wurtzel acknowledged getting those behavioral metrics is not easy.  

“We are just starting to see real-world applications of that data to actual business transactions, but it’s early days and we have a long way to go before it’s a commonly used transactional metric,” Wurtzel said. “And the 800-pound privacy gorilla in the room just complicates the problem ..."

Yet, "we need to put our resources against those solutions, which offer real potential.”

Cliche but true: with challenge comes opportunity. Wurtzel is as good as anyone to lead the pursuit, where the goal posts will probably always be moving. But that's a good thing.

Tags: television
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