Defining ‘Addressable TV’

The ideas in this blog were first outlined in the recent Decipher White Paper ‘The Emerging Context for TV Addressability’ in 2019 and presented again at the MediaTel Future TV Advertising Conference in April 2020.


Television continues to change. TV and web technologies are converging and every device we use to watch TV is ‘digital’ and most likely now ‘online’ and ‘connected’.

What used to be a wholly ‘broadcast’ industry has embraced new distribution formats like on-demand and streamed content.  Now, with the advent of ‘addressable TV’, the industry is adopting the data, analysis and targeting techniques of the web.

However, this new complex television landscape is exposing gaps in the industry’s knowledge and many agencies and sales houses don’t seem to have the basic language to describe their own products and services.  Incoherent phrases like ‘TV and digital’, which should have been banished in the first wave of convergence, routinely get used by senior industy personnel, undermining any sense of authority or expertise they may claim.

The television industry and the agency world need to ensure that all players in the industry understand the basic tech behind the new technologies and have the language and terminology to join the debate about how the new landscape should evolve.


Nigel Walley Discussing TV Addressability in the UK for FTVA 2020


TV Tech Is Changing

When TV and agency people use a phrase like ‘TV and digital’ it reveals a lack of understanding of the basic building blocks of our industry.  Everyone needs to understand a TV and advertising landscape built on a core of linear TV, while recognising ‘linear’ can now be digital ‘broadcast’ as well as linear streamed IP – all of this is TV and all of it is ‘digital’.  We also need to understand the variety in on-demand functions that have developed.  TV now includes closed format ‘platform on-demand’ (as on a Sky or Virgin STB) where advertising is delivered and measured by the platform; it includes web delivered on-demand (like channel apps) where a broadcaster controls ad sales, delivery and measurement.  The nature of the data available (and therefore the nature of addressability that is possible) varies widely between these on-demand formats.  If you can’t discuss TV in this detail, then you have no place trying to sell it or plan it on behalf of clients.

Understanding the implication for how, when and where advertising can be delivered into different TV formats formats, and the differences in what can be targeted and measured in each context, is now crucial.  For agency personnel in particular, to not be able to discuss this landscape in its full nuanced detail is a failure of agency education.

Terminology Evolves

This failure is most obviously manifest in the way agencies and sales houses discuss the industry in public and with their clients.  As the TV tech landscape evolves, so the terminology we use to describe services, functionality and devices needs to evolve if we are to have a meaningful debate about their use.

An area that needs most discussion is the nature of ‘addressability’.  Too often the industry defines ‘TV’ as a vaguely untargeted and unaccountable medium, with ‘digital’ seen as being both completely addressable and accountable.  Neither stereotype has ever been true and with new ‘addressable TV’ formats, they are increasingly incoherent.  It is increasingly important to understand when TV is delivered into a shared, ‘audience’ context (ie on a telly) versus a single viewer or ‘user’ context (on a phone or tablet).  The nature of addressability is significantly different in both and they shouldn’t be treated as being the same.

The TV and web industries need to share mutually agreed definitions and terminology. But words become redundant as our understanding  is refined. ‘Digital’, online’, ‘OTT’ and even ‘broadcast’ have been through this process and need to be sidelined.  Once helpful, they are no longer sufficiently precise and now add to a fog of confusion.  Agencies and sales houses still using phrases like ‘TV and digital’ and ‘digital products’ are merely signalling their ignorance of the modern media landscape.

A New Debate Is Starting

All of this matters because the role and applicability of most new ‘addressable’ TV formats is still being debated.  Neither is it resolved which players are best positioned to deliver advertising, to capture data and insight and to formulate services in this new landscape.  A core question is whether platforms are better positioned than broadcasters to service the needs of advertisers in this landscape and what advertisers and regulators need to do to address this issue. As these products evolve, clients need all of us to be able debate the issue and advocate for outcomes which are in their interests.  Reducing the debate to ‘TV vs digital’ is to betray our professional obligations to the clients whose budgets fund our industry.

‘Addressable TV’ is now at the point where this debate can happen and the industry needs all players to  be sufficiently informed of the details and nuances to join in.  But if you and your agency are still using phrases like TV and digital, then you aren’t even in the industry, let alone the debate.