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

By Charlene Weisler Media Insights Archives

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, Senior Vice President 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: Our clients have become much more reliant on us for trusted insights on our fans’ media behavior and how to connect with them as consumers. This is a trust we take seriously.  So for us, the use of original research, currencies and census data have become more integrated. Our ESPN XP initiative was created in 2010 to elevate our focus on cross-platform measurement by applying this integrated approach. The ultimate result of that initiative was Project Blueprint with comScore. Since then we have built robust tools to measure and model ad performance across platforms -- again by using an integrated approach. Deeper insights and understanding come from our ESPN Lab.  It’s the combination of these resources that help make us and our clients smarter.

CW: How do you use Nielsen beyond linear measurement?

AB: Right now, not a lot -- mainly because we use Nielsen mostly as a TV currency and our content is mostly seen live.  That being said, there are gaps in Nielsen’s linear audience measurement due to viewing on digital platforms and in out-of-home locations -- so filling these gaps with Nielsen is a high priority for us. One of those measurement gaps involves our TV Everywhere service, Watch ESPN. Based on our analytics, usage has grown over 70% in the past year across all platforms, but the greatest growth (+120%) is happening at home on OTT platforms. This OTT experience is much like traditional TV, so we need Nielsen to capture the co-viewing audience in front of the set.

CW: Were you surprised by this?

AB: 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.

CW: Is ESPN involved in any programmatic TV efforts?

AB: Yes. We have some programmatic activity going on right now. But ESPN is still mainly focused on our distinctive point of difference -- offering live, premium content and the ability to integrate the advertiser into the experience.

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

AB: Clearly we need more complete measurement to answer this question with precision, but based on the data we have, we can see that viewing is simply expanding to more platforms both inside and outside the home.  Live TV can now be seen everywhere and people are leveraging that capability -- we see that first hand in sports. At the same time, TV is becoming increasingly non-linear through mobile devices anywhere and with the emergence of OTT connected devices at home. This is not about cord-cutting. Most OTT users are multichannel subscribers and they are simply expanding their choices. So for many American households, there is no such thing as “least objectionable” content anymore. 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.

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

AB: We are getting closer, but the industry needs to do more work on education and gaining consensus for standardization. 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 where cross-platform measurement starts and where the big knowledge gaps are. If we can connect that to consumer interactions then we’ve got something.

CW: What is your opinion of the comScore acquisition of Rentrak?

AB: 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.

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

AB: 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. 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 research need to be more integrated. That’s where the solutions will be in media measurement.

CW: What do you see as the future of research?

AB: Research will become even more vital for revealing strategic insights and understanding human behavior in a future where the flow of data never stops. Researchers must become multidimensional in their skills to include technology, science and analytics. 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 in order to be better prepared for the future.

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