Research Has to Be Future Forward. Q&A with ESPN’s Artie Bulgrin

For those of us in Research, it is both the best of times and the most challenging of times; The best of times in that we have access to more unique data sets that can be used to gain greater insight into the consumer experience. The most challenging of times in that the discipline of media research is being bifurcated into Research, Analytics and Data departments, some reporting into the same departments, some operating parallel.

So it was with great interest that I spoke to Artie Bulgrin, SVP Global Research and Analytics for ESPN, who has been an advocate of cross platform measurement data and research solutions. ESPN was the driver behind Project Blueprint, a collaboration with comScore to build the industry’s first cross platform measurement solution. ESPN, through Bulgrin’s efforts, remains in the forefront of research solutions to the changing media environment.

Charlene Weisler: How has the marketplace’s interest in data impacted Research’s role in your company?

Artie Bulgrin: First party data in combination with other proprietary and third-party research has become an important part of the paradigm shift in our business – meaning that we know more about the ESPN fan than anyone else. So our clients have become much more reliant on us for trusted insights and guidance as to how to connect with our fans as consumers and better understand emerging behavior that is currently unmeasured or not measured well in the syndicated space. This is a trust we take seriously.  So for us research and data have been moving on a parallel plane at ESPN. I am responsible for ESPN’s audience research and our digital analytics, so we have been linking census data with traditional measures for a while. We have long advocated time-based measures, such as average minute audience, as a common denominator to link media usage across platforms. Our ESPN XP initiative was created in 2010 to move cross-platform measurement from custom project to standard practice because there was nothing out there to measure total reach or duplication across platforms. The ultimate result of that initiative was Project Blueprint with comScore. Blueprint is a perfect example of big data and panel-based audience measurement merging. If nothing else, Blueprint proved that the hybrid approach works and it is the future. 

Charlene Weisler: How do you use Nielsen beyond linear measurement?

Artie Bulgrin: Right now, not a lot. Mainly because we use Nielsen mostly as a TV currency and our content is mostly seen live.  We do have lots of non-linear digital content and will continue to seek out the best cross-platform solutions - so Nielsen could be a part of that in the future. Meanwhile filling audience gaps in our linear content remains a priority.  Nielsen’s Total Audience Measurement approach is a good plan and we are hoping it can fill those gaps, but enabling total audience measurement and achieving it are two different things. I’ve said before that audience measurement in the digital/data world is now a team sport – meaning it requires cooperation and collaboration from the media, distributors and platforms. One of those measurement gaps  involves TV Everywhere and our Watch ESPN service. Based on our analytics, usage has grown over 60% in the past year across all platforms and over 100% on OTT platforms. OTT viewing of Watch ESPN has matched or exceeded typical TV viewing levels in terms of minutes per device and it is not a personal platform and so we need Nielsen to capture the co-viewing audience in front of the set. 

Charlene Weisler: Where you surprised by this?

Artie Bulgrin: Initially yes. We thought that viewing of Watch ESPN would be driven mainly by displaced audiences in terms of reach and minutes. But now we see that more than half of the minutes consumed are coming from primary or secondary residences through the use of devices like a Roku, Apple TV or XBox 360. These have become the new set top boxes filling more rooms in American homes and creating new opportunities to watch ESPN.  

Charlene Weisler: Is ESPN involved in any programmatic TV efforts?

Artie Bulgrin: Yes. We have some programmatic activity going on right now. But ESPN is still focused on our distinctive point of difference of offering live, premium content and a well-lighted (high viewability) environment.

Charlene Weisler: Knowing what you know about cross platform viewing behavior, where do you see the viewing trends going three years from now?

Artie Bulgrin: With television content overall we are seeing fragmentation of viewing driven by more non-linear consumption of TV content. Live TV is still the king of all media activity at over 4 hours per day for the average person. But in Q2, according to Nielsen, we saw live TV viewing decline about 3% or by 8 minutes in the average day. This trend will persist as options grow and as behavior among young people evolves. About half of this change is happening right at home on the TV with the proliferation of OTT connected devices and more SVOD options. In short, Americans are expanding their choices because we love TV!  The other half of the behavioral change in TV content consumption is coming from mobile apps.  Essentially there is no such thing as “least objectionable” content anymore. Most Americans can watch what they want, when they want. At ESPN, we live in a more rarefied environment where 95% of our content is consumed live and TV is typically the best available screen. As a result, we are seeing sports becoming a priority in the hierarchy of choice for live TV viewing. That principle applies to other video platforms as sports fans use the next “best available screen” to follow their favorite events live.   

Charlene Weisler: Do you think we will get to an industry standard cross platform measurement solution?

Artie Bulgrin: We are getting closer. We have more companies than ever pursuing cross-platform measurement including comScore, Nielsen, Symphony Advance Media and Reality Mine, to mention a few. I am hoping this competition will lead to innovation and speed to market. But there are different definitions of cross-platform measurement out there and I’m not sure which will be supported by the industry. In his book “Media Planning” Erwin Ephron said “… our media planning priority is media mix. For that we need good cross-platform duplication data.” That’s in line with my view of cross-platform measurement and where the big knowledge gap is -  to answer the basic measurement questions of how many, how often and how long… meaning  reach, frequency and time which can produce valuable measures of behavior and ad impressions.  Once we know how reach and exposure happens, then we can measure advertising impact more effectively. The search for a perfect solution will never stop in my opinion. We have to stay at it as an industry to keep pace with technology and the consumer. 

Charlene Weisler: What is your opinion of the comScore acquisition of Rentrak?

Artie Bulgrin: We have been partners with comScore since 2012 when they transformed from pure digital measurement to cross platform measurement. With Project Blueprint they are currently the lone national cross platform source out there for planning and content measurement. The merger with Rentrak will certainly strengthen comScore’s TV measurement capability and create some competition for Nielsen. Competition is always good for the industry – it breeds innovation.

Charlene Weisler: What is your philosophy on data and its impact on your job?

Artie Bulgrin: Big data is now transforming our business on an analytics level and helping to improve audience measurement with its granularity and real-time benefits. But data alone can create the illusion of precision which we have to be careful of. Lots of data does not mean it is meaningful or representative. It could be biased and unrepresentative. The other caution is that data can lead to compromises. For example, analytics may mean more precision in device usage, but less precision or even no data on people. So as I said before, data and measurement must run on parallel tracks - that’s where the solutions will be in media measurement. If used properly with the right standards in place, ultimately data plus measurement will lead to solutions that can measure media exposure and connect that exposure to impact at the consumer level. That’s the Holy Grail! 

Charlene Weisler: What do you see as the future of research?

Artie Bulgrin: It’s exciting and so different from when I started 34 years ago. Based on how busy we are and how quickly things are changing, I see a greater reliance on Research for strategic insights with much more reliance on technology and science. Researchers today need to be perpetual students focused on the latest innovations and studying the future in a present tense. This was the main reason we created the ESPN Lab in Austin – to bring advanced science and methods to the study of media and advertising; an approach that gives us deeper insights on how people are interacting with media and advertising right now. The future is around us. We need to find it, study it and be prepared for what will happen next. 

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