NBCU Strengthens Partnership With FreeWheel To Power A Linear And Digital Convergence

As consumers increasingly use their living room TVs to watch streaming content via CTV and apps, NBCUniversal has pushed the needle forward with video ad server FreeWheel in what it described as a “landmark” move that will transform the way that NBCU clients buy linear TV advertising from the company.

The company said Wednesday that it has deepened its partnership with sister company FreeWheel – also owned by NBCU parent Comcast – by optimizing and simplifying the planning and buying process.

FreeWheel began handling decisioning for NBCU’s digital and linear inventory nearly two years ago, and the company will now take the lead across all NBCU properties using its new AutoScheduler technology.

AutoScheduler was built to align optimization capabilities of a linear traffic log with a digital ad server. The tool automates the placement of ads, placing spots across NBCU networks and enabling more efficient delivery against a marketer’s target demographic.

“The way this transforms things is it allows marketers and agencies to focus on getting the audiences that they want to hit on a big screen TV and not getting limited by the fragmentation of the platforms or the ad technology that frankly, is overtly focused on so many digital ads or linear ads,” Ryan McConville, NBCU’s executive vice president of ad platforms and operations, told AdExchanger. “It opens up huge opportunities in terms of how media is bought, how it’s optimized.”

The new capabilities will begin to transform the way that NBCU clients buy linear TV advertising from the company, making the end-to-end process simpler and laying the foundation for digital ad insertion and full linear and digital unification across the NBCU portfolio for campaign execution and pacing.

“TV and digital have been separate historically,” McConville said. “The problem right now, with the rise of OTT and CTV, is that what used to be very separate – like a linear log schedule or a linear delivery on a TV screen, and a digital ad server for websites and mobile phones – has really come together on the consumer side where almost all of the consumption is happening now on big-screen TV, whether linear or digital.”

He added that 97% of video consumption in a typical NBCU campaign occurs on a TV screen, whether delivered via linear, CTV, or set-top box video on demand (STB VOD).

“To the end user, it really is one platform, one big-screen experience,” McConville said. “It makes less and less sense over time to keep the way that we manage those ads separate.”

The partnership with FreeWheel will also help NBCU create a more accessible ecosystem for its One Platform initiative, which launched in February, and is designed to let advertisers buy, measure and optimize their campaigns across NBCU’s linear and digital assets.

“We really set a very sturdy foundation here for FreeWheel being able to be the converged ad decisioning engine for One Platform,” McConville said.

For example, FreeWheel can look at NBCU’s Nielsen demo audience expectations across the broadcaster’s linear schedule – and across its digital footprint. If an advertiser wants to reach a certain segment, FreeWheel can determine whether they’re better off being on MSNBC on the connected TV app rather than MSNBC on the linear cable channel.

Though the tech integration does not fully bring dynamic ad insertion to linear TV, it lays the foundation for the full unification of linear and digital video.

“You could imagine a world [in the future] where if linear ratings are declining or you’re just not finding your intended audience in a digital or linear schedule, those spots could be moved automatically to digital without any phone calls, without any renegotiation,” McConville said. “You couldn’t get to a state like that without having one system that’s able to look at both platforms.”

Geoffrey Wolinetz, head of sell-side revenue for FreeWheel, told AdExchanger that the move will better position NBCU, and the industry, as TV becomes more impression-based – even if that’s years away.

“But foundationally, without this, none of that can be done,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re setting ourselves up for these transactions.”

Wolinetz added that FreeWheel is looking at working with other traditional broadcasters in the future.

“At this time we’re focused here on NBC,” he said, adding that not everyone uses the same broadcast trafficking system. “Long range, absolutely. Right now, we want to make sure that the technology that we pushed out to market is functioning the way that NBCU needs it to.”

Asked how the integration could change the way ads are transacted – and the type of bundles that NBCU is able to offer – McConville said that NBCU will be able to offer a portfolio bundle that is more fluid and offers better guarantees on target delivery.