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The Takeaway: Curb Zombie Viewing to Make CTV Investments Work Harder

3 MINUTE READ | July 26, 2022

The Takeaway: Curb Zombie Viewing to Make CTV Investments Work Harder

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Kia Igel

Kia Igel has written this article. More details coming soon.

Buying connected TV (CTV) ads from industry leaders like Roku, Hulu, and Tubi has traditionally been one of the safest, most trustworthy advertising investments. Because these streaming platforms rely on their own first-party data to see that a viewer is subscribed, logged on, and watching a TV show or movie, incidences of fraud across the CTV landscape are virtually unheard of. However, a recent Wall Street Journal article revealed that CTV apps and ancillary devices are still running in the background when a TV is turned off, wasting an estimated $1 billion a year in advertising dollars on ads that are never seen. 

Known as “zombie viewing,” this occurs when a device continues playback, including ad deployment, but the TV display is off, resulting in impressions getting charged to the advertiser. Unfortunately, this issue isn’t new to TV advertisers, as a similar situation can occur with traditional cable TV after the viewer turns off the TV but not the cable box, with programs and ads continuing to run when no viewer is there to watch them.

According to industry studies, zombie viewing is estimated to occur with 8-10 percent of CTV ad buys, and only affects apps running through third-party hardware, such as dongles, streaming boxes, and gaming consoles, which represents upwards of 60 percent of the TV market, that are plugged into the HDMI port of a TV. Zombie viewing doesn't occur on native apps running via a smart TV’s operating system. It’s worth noting that the industry study cited by Wall Street Journal used data from one TV manufacturer (Vizio), with results that don’t suggest or substantiate any larger claims about the entire TV streaming ad industry. 

Industry players, from streaming apps to TV and CTV device manufacturers, are aware of this issue and are testing solutions. Some streaming platforms have implemented their own tools to actively prevent zombie viewing. For example, all Hulu and ABC apps automatically shut off after four hours of inactivity during playback, and Roku devices provide “Are you still watching?” prompts after a channel has been continuously streamed for an extended period without viewer interaction. 

Similarly, Roku devices go inactive after the device detects that the TV has been turned off by the viewer. Digital media measurement software DoubleVerify offers Fully On-Screen certification for CTV partners that now includes zombie viewing prevention, citing that “the certification requires a manual review [by the DoubleVerify team] to certify that ads play on screen, and as a recent addition, that the app pauses when the TV screen is turned off.” Hulu is one of the most popular streaming apps to be DoubleVerify Fully On-Screen certified. 

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As partners like iSpot.TV offer solutions to combat zombie viewing, we can expect industry organizations like the IAB to release new technology and revise industry standards in the months to come to reduce zombie viewing occurrences. Fortunately, as more consumers update to smart TVs and native apps rather than external devices to watch streaming TV content, the risk of zombie viewing will decline while more consistent standards are rolled out across TVs and other hardware. Targeting methods, such as targeting Smart TVs instead of CTV devices can be helpful in preventing possible ad waste, but it may affect campaign reach and scale. In the meantime, we recommend for marketers to speak with their CTV providers on what they’re doing to prevent zombie viewing across their devices and adjust campaigns accordingly.

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