When was TV’s Golden Age? Depends on what you’re counting—and whom you’re asking. Some hark back to the 1950s when such live programming as the Kraft Television Theater and Playhouse 90 ruled the limited airwaves. Others suggest that the era of high-quality programming ushered in by The Sopranos in 1999 was as golden an age as we’ve seen. Many viewers, sidelined from their normal lives by the current pandemic and filling the hours watching what is arguably the widest range of TV, CTV, and OTT programming ever offered, may feel that today is nirvana.
Brad Stockton, vice president, video innovation, at Dentsu Aegis, looks back wistfully to the ‘50s—but from a different point of view, that of advertising, not programming. “If you go back to the days when TV started,” he notes, “the announcer always said, ‘This content is brought to you by our advertisers, our friends, who are spending money to give us the ability to create content.” As Stockton looks at today’s picture, roiled by such viewer experience-killing forces as blank ads, latency, repetitive ads, back-to-back competitive ads, and ad pods that go on so long they try a viewer’s patience—and tear the viewer away from the screen—he still feels hopeful. “I think the same concept can really happen again,” he says. “Managing ad load is so important to what we’re doing from a consumer experience.”
Serena Palau, director of product marketing at digital video innovator PubMatic, agrees. “TV is the standard that we want to model,” she says, referring to the seamless way in which linear TV has always sewn commercials and content together. “But delivering that type of TV experience digitally requires collaboration across the entire OTT ecosystem”—collaboration that, until now, was rarely in view. “When I’m in the middle of a streaming marathon,” Palau says, “and I start seeing the same ads over and over again or there are issues with latency, I just give up. I get frustrated, and I move on. I can’t imagine that my experience is very different from other viewers out there right now.”
Job Number One
As a result, says Palau, “Solving for viewer experience is the number-one priority.” But it’s complicated, she adds. “A key challenge with OTT comes from ad stitching. The commercial break—or ad pod—is a lot more complicated than linear because you need to stitch the content and the ads together, which requires another layer of technology that not everyone is working with.” And if you’re drowning in a waterfall system, sequentially calling multiple bidders, it slows down the ad load times. This process, Palau adds, “frequently leads to timeouts or to no ad load at all, and then you get the despised ‘We’ll be back in a moment’ filler.”
It’s not surprising that the system often breaks down, notes Stockton. “When you’re in the connected TV space,” he says, “there are so many different exchanges and ways of who can access what inventory. A lot of times you can’t manage your own buys because you might have two or three people tapping into the exact same pod—and it might even be the same advertiser through two different sources.”
The solution, says Palau, is server-to-server header bidding, which is at the core of PubMatic’s new product, OpenWrap OTT. Built on Prebid server, this system “flattens the waterfall to centralize ad decisioning and bid in parallel” by streamlining the path from requests to delivery “by making a single call and then pinging all the bidders server side.” In this system, there’s just “one platform to survey all the demand and then to compile the best ad pods for the situation,” she says. “It provides publishers with the transparency and controls to balance their business rules with monetization goals and ultimately deliver a great viewer experience.”
The Crux is Context
For an advertiser like Stockton, this is also critical. “My job,” he says, “is just to make sure that the ads are being placed in the right contextual places. When you can serve contextually relevant ads, whether it’s because of the content viewers are watching or your targeting abilities, that drives greater brand intent and a greater experience, which makes viewers want to come back and continue watching the content.” The technology offered by OpenWrap, Stockton says, “is what’s going to allow the ad stitching to be a lot more seamless, making sure that the creative is being placed where it needs to be for the viewer experience to be optimal.”
Regardless of who is evaluating the situation, adds Palau, it all comes down to the viewer experience. “If you can’t deliver a positive, engaging, and non-interruptive experience, then you’re not going to retain those viewers. And without a happy viewer and a viewer who’s tuned in and staying committed, engaged to your content, there is no monetization. There is no brand awareness of your ad. It’s a question of always thinking about the viewer first.”
Next week we’ll conclude this series with a look at what’s next for CTV and OTT. What new challenges are advertisers and publishers likely to face? What types of technology will provide new fixes? And how can the viewer experience be further improved, making sure that this is truly TV’s Golden Age?