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Tackling Tech: What Programmatic Ads Mean to NFL TV Partners & Fans

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Jan. 19, 2002. Patriots 16, Raiders 13 OT, AFC Divisional RoundThe final game at Foxboro Stadium was one for the ages, as Adam Vinatieri hit a 45-yard game-tying field goal amid a snow storm with 27 seconds left. He then booted a 23-yarder in OT to give the Pats a thrilling come-from-behind victory, capping a 15-play, 61-yard drive engineered by Tom Brady, who notched the first of his now NFL-record 25 playoff wins. 

In NBCU's case, programmatic ads are needed more with non-sports programming as ratings for these shows need to be stronger, soon. NBC carries Sunday Night Football games and recently picked up some Thursday Night Football matchups when the league decided to split its broadcast lineup between CBS and the Comcast entity. Ratings for NFL game casts, especially primetime contests are already high and among the most-watched programming on Sunday and Monday Nights.

Following Suit

NBC is not the only TV giant with programming assets to have invested in delivering programmatic ads, thought it started a few years ago with its online content. Disney's ABC began testing them a few years ago. Expect NBC rivals to join the movement, especially those who have offered this capability as part of their online streaming video services.

The Bottom Line

Programmatic ads are neither new nor mature. Automating the traditional process of buying spots (which includes phone calls, emails, etc.) is clearly welcomed by advertisers and media buyers and is a big step toward truly programmatic ads, which are sold in auctions. The impact for viewers such as sports fans should be a gradual movement toward more targeted and watcher-relevant ads. Hopefully.

If you notice a positive difference this fall, these newer type ads are working. If not, there will be more eye-rolling from fans along with forgettable commercials.

Stay tuned. Literally.

Bob Wallace is a technology journalist with over 30 years of experience explaining how new services, apps, consumer electronic devices and video sources are reshaping the world of communications as we know it. Wallace has specific expertise in explaining how and why advances in technology redefine the way sports fans interact with their league, teams, players and each other. He's the Founder of Fast Forward Thinking LLC.

Are you ready for some programmatic ads?

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When the NFL kicks off the regular season this fall, Comcast's NBC Universal unit will be letting ad agencies better target viewers of its TV network shows with more relevant commercials that are bought using an automated process, not emails and phone calls.

If you asked sports fans who like ads to raise their hands, you might get as many responses as if you were looking for volunteers to clean up a Hazmat site. Unlike the Super Bowl, few if any fans are tuning in with watching ads as part of the fun.

There are occasional funny ads, but endless ads of cars racing along closed courses with professional drivers and pickups hauling or pulling super heavy objects usually elicits eye rolls from video viewers. Throw in ever-present auto insurance commercials too.

But in the ongoing effort to run ads that are more targeted at their viewers and not just national shotgun blasts, the advertising industry has been driving more "intelligent" ads to sports audiences. 

Game Change

This started with online video a few years ago, was announced last week by NBCU for its linear TV shows (as in broadcast and cable TV carried programming), and may eventually come to mobile devices, which is currently a problem. Ads targeted to your interest or even geographic location could be useful.

These more targeted spots are called "programmatic ads" and they use automation and consumer data from the ad buyers and third parties to help deliver more relevant ads to video viewers. 

That's a big change when you consider how ad buying is typically done today for TV. Ad time is bought well in advance using email and/or phone calls, locked in, and run as planned - without changes - when the sports contest or TV show runs. Now companies like NBCU, have what are called performance marketing "platforms" that enable the more data-driven and automated buying of more targeted ads.

The Goal: (A simplified scenario).

Before: Advertisers and media buyers purchase national ads to boost sales of boats. Most of the ads are shown to viewers in TV markets that are not near lakes or oceans. The boat company reaches the largest audience at but most of those in land-locked locales tune the ads out.

When it comes to audience reach here, bigger isn't really better.

After: Advertisers and media buys collect internal data on those who have shown interest in boats (perhaps those who subscriber to a boating magazine), ads that to areas close to water bodies and add in third-party viewer data on folks with boating interests and craft a marketing plan that focuses on targeting these audience segments with their ads. The total viewership is far smaller, but the chances of reaching a more interested audience are far higher.

All NBCU programming will be available through this approach, including the most desirable live sports matches, according to a company spokesperson.

Caveat: With NBCU, programmatic ads will only be available to "select" customers and client buying platforms.

The Future: Ad plans run across platforms (TV, online and mobile) and can be changed on-the-fly based on viewing numbers. Ads can be bought via auctions. Buyers are able to determine if the targeted audience viewed the ads and how and where to follow up with them with additional spots. These spots provide useful information to increase their interest in learning more about boats - and perhaps buying them. 

Ads: for Better or Worse?

Programmatic ads certainly can't be worse than watching a multi-hour, live, sporting event and seeing almost the exact set of the exact same ads during every commercial break - a mind-numbing experience that has resulted in a growing chorus of complaints from unhappy fans. The same for pre- and post-game sports shows for the event.

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And with DVRs powerless against ads in live sports events such as NFL contests, viewers will likely applaud anything that makes ads less annoying, at the very least.

It's tough to say whether programmatic ads are better or worse than traditional ads. That's because they are mostly used with online video. And in many cases, companies such as NBCU that stream big live sports events online, take their linear telecasts with ads sold for TV and simply stream them online without changing the ads. Also, some sell ad space on streams for the same national ads shown on broadcast TV "as an incremental value," as CBS did with Super Bowl 50.

Those watching live sports contests, such as NFL games on broadcast and cable TV, should soon be able to notice programmatic ads and decide if they like these more targeted ads than what they are used to. What will be most interesting is whether or not fans notice any real difference in the ads included in game casts. Programmatic ads mean changes in the ways ad space is bought, sold and used from the status quo, so no perceptible difference likely means little or no effect on viewers, which would be a fail.

It's Programmatic!

Comcast is a big believer in programmatic ads, having sold them with its online properties for roughly two years. The media giant has bought two companies - Visible World and Freewheel - to fuel its programmatic ad drive. Other online video streamers have already bought exchanges to enable the automated buying and selling of programmatic ads.

nbc_sunday_night_football_logo.jpg

In NBCU's case, programmatic ads are needed more with non-sports programming as ratings for these shows need to be stronger, soon. NBC carries Sunday Night Football games and recently picked up some Thursday Night Football matchups when the league decided to split its broadcast lineup between CBS and the Comcast entity. Ratings for NFL game casts, especially primetime contests are already high and among the most-watched programming on Sunday and Monday Nights.

Following Suit

NBC is not the only TV giant with programming assets to have invested in delivering programmatic ads, thought it started a few years ago with its online content. Disney's ABC began testing them a few years ago. Expect NBC rivals to join the movement, especially those who have offered this capability as part of their online streaming video services.

The Bottom Line

Programmatic ads are neither new nor mature. Automating the traditional process of buying spots (which includes phone calls, emails, etc.) is clearly welcomed by advertisers and media buyers and is a big step toward truly programmatic ads, which are sold in auctions. The impact for viewers such as sports fans should be a gradual movement toward more targeted and watcher-relevant ads. Hopefully.

If you notice a positive difference this fall, these newer type ads are working. If not, there will be more eye-rolling from fans along with forgettable commercials.

Stay tuned. Literally.

Bob Wallace is a technology journalist with over 30 years of experience explaining how new services, apps, consumer electronic devices and video sources are reshaping the world of communications as we know it. Wallace has specific expertise in explaining how and why advances in technology redefine the way sports fans interact with their league, teams, players and each other. He's the Founder of Fast Forward Thinking LLC.

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