Watching the watchers: TiVo tracks ad viewing

Ad agency Starcom teams with TiVo to be the first to use its Nielsen ratings-like data to track which television shows and ads people fast-forward through, watch, and time-shift.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read

Remember TiVo's reporting of Janet Jackson at the 2004 Super Bowl, when thousands of people replayed her "wardrobe malfunction" over and over on their digital video recorder?


Years later, major advertisers are even more rapt about people's TiVo behavior, particularly as it pertains to the commercials they watch.

Starcom USA, a Chicago advertising agency with such clients as Walt Disney, Coke and Kraft, has teamed with TiVo to be the first to use its so-called PowerWatch Ratings Service, a Nielsen Ratings-like service that reports--based on input from a panel--which television shows and ads people fast-forward, watch, and time-shift (which means to record and watch later). TiVo reported the first findings of the new ratings system on Tuesday.

"A lot people in this industry have speculated that older people don't fast-forward through programming as much because they're not tech savvy, or they believe early adopters are uber TiVo users and never watch live TV or commercials," said Todd Juenger, TiVo's vice president and general manager of audience research and measurement, who helped get the ratings group started two years ago.

"What this data shows is that none of that is true. People are fast-forwarding and time-shifting on an overall basis in the same amounts. But what they time-shift is really different," he said. (He did not break out numbers on how much content people time-shift or fast-forward.)

For example, in a somewhat obvious finding, households with children under the age of 12 are much more likely to watch time-shifted commercials about children's skincare products, toys and computer games, than those households with adults over 50.

In contrast, households with adults over 50 are more likely to watch time-shifted commercials about political parties, collectibles and art, hair restoration products, and foreign travel, according to data TiVo collected on roughly 15,000 volunteer households in May.

The takeaway? People are still watching commercials if they're relevant to them.

People are fast-forwarding and time-shifting on an overall basis in the same amounts. But what they time-shift is really different."
--Todd Juenger, TiVo VP of audience research and measurement

For its part, TiVo is trying to build up its new TV analytics and ratings services to compete with established players like Nielsen. Its products include StopWatch, a tracking service that lets advertisers and television networks see which shows and commercials people are actively fast-forwarding and watching on a time-shifted basis, down to the second. To collect that data, TiVo tracks anonymous click streams from a random sample of about 20,000 people of its 3.8 million subscribers on a nightly basis, according to Juenger. (It can do this in accordance with the TiVo privacy policy, he said.)

In contrast, TiVo produces PowerWatch data from a volunteer panel that have agreed to attach their demographic and geographic details to their behaviors. When it launched last year, its panel size was double that of Nielsen's, according to Juenger. (Nielson has since bumped up the size of its panel.) Since last year, TiVo has attracted big advertising and television network clients, including Starcom, NBC and CBS, parent company of CNET News.

TiVo's come a long ways since the Janet Jackson incident, when many of its members charged the company with violating their privacy by tracking them. The 11-year-old company has been careful to disclose its monitoring since then.

"The people who invented TiVo always anticipated bringing back viewership data from the box and using it," Juenger said "Only a few years ago did it get into that."