INdustry: Civolution Supersizes ACR with Ad Info

It feels like the ACR business is starting to shift gears. Whereas last year, I think the market was working to grock the scope and importance of ACR and its ability to connect devices and cloud services to traditional TV, now it seems like we're digging in a bit and starting to figure out how to actually do all this stuff.

One symptom of that change is a shift in the discussion from what ACR does to which ACR system is best. We're starting to get reports from the marketplace that some ACR systems are really better than others in terms of accuracy, resolution, and of course cost. I've been presenting ACR overviews to various parties and people are asking more and more questions about the specifics, how things work, which system is best, and so forth. Good signs. Many issues to deal with, but good signs.

With these thoughts rattling about in my head, I met last week with Alex Terpstra, CEO of Civolution, and his always-in-the-know biz dev guru, Tracy Geist. Civolution is, in many ways, the large incumbent in the ACR domain. Automatic Content Recognition (gotta spell it out once per article, I'm told) has been up and running for many years and Civolution has perhaps the broadest portfolio of incumbent ACR applications, ranging from forensics/theft detection to content blocking and monitoring or audit. They're quite widely deployed globally and have been growing a solid business for some years.

ACR applications for media synchronization, which is probably the right, actual descriptor for all the hoopla we've been hooping of late, is actually not new either. Shazam basically started the category (or at least popularized/commercialized it) with their audio-recognition app some years ago.    

But the use of ACR to sync apps with TV is relatively new and, from what I can tell, Civolution is just now starting to leverage their historical strength in the category to build a new business in ACR TV.

Like most folks following ACR, I've seen Civolution's various announcements, but I wasn't quite sure how they were going to differentiate. This past week, I heard two important points. I suspect there are more, and I suspect I'll get an email from Ms. Geist on that (!)...but I heard two loud and clear.   

First, there are systems and products and then there are broadcast systems and products. Broadcasters run big businesses with big dollars flowing through. Their uptime and reliability requirements are stringent. Civolution asserts that their long history of supplying broadcasters with broadcast-quality ACR systems that have been tested and accepted into broadcast environments is a real competitive advantage. That's true for sure, and it's not something that fast-moving start-ups with no such experience will quickly emulate. To the extent that a given application requires installation in a broadcast environment, this advantage is material.

Second, we start to see the market rationalizing a bit. In the companion-app or two-screen ACR TV market, there are companies that provide ACR-based applications, and there are companies that provide ACR technology that can be incorporated into applications. In the former group, Shazam and Umami have built their own ACR systems and are wrapping their own apps or consumer platforms around those ACR systems. And there are companies like start-up, Get This (getthis.tv), that has a "buy this now" app that will license ACR tech from a third party and focus their entrepreneurial energy and investor capital on their app.

I suspect we'll see more and more companies like Get This. Specialization makes sense. Running ACR systems is costly and works better economically with many users. There will exceptions, but I'm guessing this will be the main trend going forward.

So, in this new competition to supply ACR services, what will differentiate the providers? Many things, of course, but Civolution has an interesting way to up the ante.

As mentioned above, they've been providing monitoring services in the US for some time. Their customers are broadcasters and advertisers that want to verify that shows have been aired, that ads have been aired and, importantly, that ads have been aired in their entirety. A 30-second ad, for example, should be played for all 30 seconds, and that means that the audit system needs to measure every second of playout.

Who cares? Why, people who want to license ACR services care!  

Why? Because most of the ACR systems out there today downlink video from live feeds and append Tribune metadata. That provides a set of fingerprints for matching purposes and a set of data fields--asset-level descriptors--that can be delivered to the client when a match occurs. So, your phone knows that the TV in the room is playing "The Closer" and it probably has time code as well.   

But what if you want to launch apps when ads are on TV? With the basic Tribune data set, you have a problem. Tribune doesn't track ad insertions.

And here's the point. Civolution's monitoring app does. They have both show and ad info to provide and for many applications, that's a huge plus. And, because they are verifying that ads run in their entirety, their system is sampling every second. That means that their matching API is accurate to the second and API users can trigger events within a couple seconds of the appearance of an ad.     

The monitoring app is presently running all DMA's in the US, and I think monitors most if not all stations in those markets.    

One hitch: at the time of this writing, I do not believe Civolution is monitoring cable programming networks (e.g. Bravo, TBS, etc...). That's a big hole from an audience standpoint, but it's not that costly to fill and I expect that if demand for the app is strong, the hole will be filled quickly.

In any case, an interesting incremental point to consider as we all find our way in this emerging ACR TV marketplace--and an important step in the right direction.

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Michael is the president and CEO of MediaTech Strategies, a consulting company that helps investors and operating companies develop and capitalize on emerging media technologies.   He has over 18 years' experience in the media technology business, including previous CEO roles at Ucentric Systems, where he pioneered the multiroom DVR category and PhyFlex Networks, where he developed a new access network solution for cable.  Michael previously held senior executive positions with OpenTV, ICTV (now ActiveVideo Networks), Motorola and Playboy TV.  Through his consulting practice, he has provided services to more than 50 companies of all types, stages and size.