Automated Content Recognition (ACR): The Field-Leveling Technology for T/V (Television/Video)

The emerging technology Automatic Content Recognition (ACR) is upending the way television has always been measured as an advertising medium. ACR allows TV, still the largest vehicle for ad industry spending, to compete with and defend against other digital video advertising platforms. With most consumers, by 2021, able to view content on Connected/Smart TVs, smartphone screens and other connected mobile devices, ACR is opening doors for the old television industry to re-imagine itself as a driving force behind an exciting, new digital T/V (Television/Video) ecosystem.

What is ACR?

ACR is a technology that (with device-owner permission) reads pixels on a smart, internet-connected device screen as it delivers content to a T/V consumer—on a second by second basis. A recent Forbes article explains that the data is then shared with the manufacturer’s tracking software, matching them to a database that keeps track of local broadcasts and other T/V content sources.

So What?

In the past, ad value was determined by the “opportunity to expose” a viewer to an ad (not actual verified exposure). The contextual program rating served as surrogate for the commercial rating. ACR helps advertisers know if the ad itself was on-screen for specific viewers and for how long, and will help sellers justify higher rates for verified, completed views. Some points of valuation capturable through ACR include:

  • The type of viewing platform—Connected TV, OTT, Linear TV, DVR playback, MVPDs, VOD
  • Location—both fixed screen and mobile locations
  • Viewer profiles—individual or household demographics and/or IP addresses, aiding cross-media measurement
  • Viewing behavior—viewability, program/provider preferences, ad avoidance, ad consumption, time spent, channel surfing, fast-forwarding, binge-watching, completed views etc.

ACR is not only about helping television get more digital; it also allows digitally-delivered video to move beyond impressions and calculate reach and frequency, which has always been a necessity for television buyers.

The real-time nature of recording “glass-level” behavior moves T/V measurement into territory that television has not yet dared to visit. TV must be more measurable in order to compete with other digital delivery platforms. And according to Adweek, “ACR data provides the first independent verifiable source [of addressable audience data] through direct verification.”

This authentication of data, combined with second-by-second viewing measurement plus the door-opening promise of addressable T/V are key reasons why historic television content and measurement giants are seriously investing in ACR:

  • After acquiring Gracenote’s Video Automatic Content Recognition (ACR) technology in 2017, Nielsen has integrated Gracenote-branded technology, unique IDs and metadata (through its own Grabix analytics platform) into an increasing number of its measurement, analytics and advanced advertising solutions according to Nielsen.
  • CBS, A&E and MediaTek have joined with Nielsen’s Gracenote in a five-market pilot, enabling the many MediaTek-powered Smart TV platforms to deliver addressable advertising capabilities in live trials.
  • Ad Age recently revealed that NBC Universal, CBS, Disney Media Networks, Discovery, AMC Networks, Turner, AT&T’s Xandr, Comcast’s FreeWheel and Hearst TV have formed a consortium with Inscape, a division of Vizio (10 million Smart TVs) to develop open standards for ACR, DAI and addressability across all Smart TVs. It is called OAR, for Open Addressable Ready.

Challenges Ahead

Data privacy issues and the consumer opt-in challenges will guide the level of success that ACR and its sibling addressability technology DAI will bring to the ad industry. As GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act bring legal restrictions or self-regulation, consumer data privacy and how data is used will be a hot issue.

All ACR players will need to stay ahead of regulation by making opt-in transparent to users and terms of use as clear as possible. Digital marketing news publisher DMN calls the February 2017 settlement between the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Vizio “ the de-facto case law on the topic”, believing that ACR companies are now required to both prominently disclose the “opt-in” agreement to the consumer and obtain their express consent.

What Now?

By 2021, according to eMarketer, there will be about 114 million Smart TVs in the U.S.—enabled by ACR-capable devices like Roku and Apple TV. ACR is about data, viewability and addressability – all adding obvious value for advertisers and content providers. However, any growth will happen only if consumer benefits like content search, ad relevancy and a saner volume and frequency of ad messages justify viewer decisions to opt-into the ACR process.


Catch John Osborn’s session, “What Do Advertisers Want From Video?” at Ops June 4 in NYC, where he’ll discuss what advertisers want from video in terms of audience targeting, metrics, and most importantly what they should be looking for.