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Will Facial and Eye Tracking Be TV Viewership’s New Focus?

April 27th, 2017   ||    by Todd Wasserman   ||    No Comments

Traditionally, TV viewership has been defined as “being in the room while the TV set is playing.” In reality, though, advertisers had no idea if those “viewers” were actually viewing anything. Someone might take a bathroom break during a TV spot or reach for their phone—it’s 2017, after all.

Until recently, this has presented an unsolvable problem—but technology is here to help provide some clarity. TVision Insights, a Boston-based start-up company, uses Microsoft’s Kinect technology to track the eye movements, body language, and facial expressions of viewers in relation to a TV screen. For advertisers, the difference between passive and active viewing may be a crucial one, and the ability to measure that difference could potentially disrupt the TV market. But the new technology is also raising concerns about consumer privacy, which might ultimately limit its use.

Pretty Little Findings

So far, eye-tracking viewers have netted some interesting observations about how people actually watch TV. For instance, a 2016 collaboration between TVision and MediaHub found that audiences were more likely to pay attention to a show when they were viewing it with other people in the room, according to AdvertisingAge. That research also showed that 15-second ads with strong climaxes performed better than 30-second ads. In one instance, a 15-second ad did four times better than a 30-second ad. The data also revealed that fewer people are in the room in the morning—which also means fewer people are engaged with programming during morning hours.

For advertisers, ratings could add another dimension to viewing data. Rather than making buys based on reach and demographics, advertisers could also look at audience engagement. For instance, the data might confirm that Pretty Little Liars—which Variety called the “most social” TV show of 2016—is a more attractive advertising vehicle than The Big Bang Theory, which nets higher ratings.

Station groups would also be able to measure success via engagement and impressions. That could change pricing, which is currently formed on a cost per thousand impressions (CPM) viewers basis. Cost per engagement, a pricing structure for digital media, might migrate to TV.

Data’s Great, but Privacy Is Too

Many station groups would welcome the disruption. TVision has racked up some $9.65 million in funding so far, TechCrunch reported, because it’s meeting a real need in the market. Nielsen merely monitors TV viewership by checking when the TV is on and relying on viewers to self-report their activity—but this can result in data that’s not fully accurate. Meanwhile, digital media provides much better data on who has been exposed to ads and for how long. For advertisers, connecting automated TV targeting to data about actual viewer engagement can allow TV to reach parity with digital media.

That said, TVision’s sample size is still very small—just 7,000 homes in the U.S. and Japan as of last year, according to TechCrunch. The company is hoping to bring that number to 15,000 soon. But for the time being, scale remains an obstacle: Nielsen’s panel, for instance, is currently composed of 42,500 households.

There are also privacy concerns. When Microsoft applied for a patent in 2012 that would allow them to use Kinect to target consumers based on their emotional state, Forbes warned that “Do Not Track” could evolve into “Do Not Track My Movements.” As with all new technology, face and eye tracking for TV offers potentially enormous (and disruptive) benefits, but users must be mindful of its potential effects.

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