Bill Livek

Bill Livek, Vice Chairman of the Board of Comscore

Interview Date: April 28, 2023
Interviewer: Stewart Schley


Bill Livek, Vice Chairman of the Board of Comscore, talks about his career as a pioneer in media audience measurement. He begins by acknowledging the influence of Dr. John Kurtz at Southern Illinois University and describes his start at Arbitron on the radio side. Livek describes the early breakthrough in cable TV measurement was when Arbitron agreed to count national, out-of-market, viewers of Ted Turner’s WTBS instead of just local viewers, making the superstation more attractive to advertisers. Next he describes the founding of Birch Research and their acquisition of Scarborough and their innovations relating people’s television viewing to what they bought; the key was and is to not just count the audience but also describe the characteristics. Livek started Adcom to use thousands of low-cost meters to measure cable audiences and the pilot project was Continental Cablevision’s Jacksonville FL system. He then describes his work with Rentrak and Comscore in building cross-platform big data sets for broadcast, cable, satellite, telco, and movies in all 210 local markets, and that data enables addressable advertising to highly targeted audiences. Livek mentions the coming role of AI in the research world and also the importance of making sure the databases being used are truthful.

Interview Transcript

STEWART SCHLEY: Greetings, ahoy, and welcome to this iteration of the Hauser Oral History Series presented by Syndeo Institute at the Cable Center. We’re in midtown Manhattan. It is April of 2023 and seated with me is Bill Livek who is an individual who’s had an extraordinary career in media measurement tracing back to the late 1970s. He is the retired CEO and remaining vice chairman of Comscore. Bill, we’re so happy to have you with us today.

BILL LIVEK: I’m happy to be here.

SCHLEY: Really at the head of the table for decades relating to media measurement and audience — you’ve counted things, Bill, for your entire career and we’re so happy to get to converse for about an hour about your career. You just recently retired as vice chairman of Comscore, a mighty presence in cross platform media measurement. Congratulations there. But let’s take you back, if I could, because normally we dispense with the college. Everybody goes to college, gets a degree, goes to work, but your college experience was sort of instructive and interesting because in the mid to late ’70s you actually had professors, I think you told me, who knew a little bit about this new beast called cable television. Tell me about that.

LIVEK: We certainly did. I was inspired actually to study in college communications and it actually dates back to high school. My high school in Chicago was right across the street from WGN. It was a Catholic high school called Gordon Tech that today is called DePaul College Prep and they had a closed-circuit TV station. Think about cable. And WGN donated all their old equipment and it certainly piqued my interest in the idea of communicating to not just a broad audience, but a narrow audience. So when I started my career at DePaul University, because most Chicagoans live in Chicago, want to stay in Chicago, but I had a professor who taught film and media who said, “Bill, you’re wasting your time here. You should be at Southern Illinois University.” It’s a unique place in a unique time that a lot of the founders of the broadcast industry from capital cities were getting their PhDs in going there. So, blindly, I took her advice. I applied to transfer and I did just that. And Southern Illinois had a unique curriculum. It was studying just not your liberal arts, but also a concentration in the communications school on cable TV and broadcast.

SCHLEY: Early on.

LIVEK: Early, early. These founders from cable TV, they had curriculum on advertising sales. They also had curriculum on research where they taught us how to study an audience that was seemingly unmeasurable.

SCHLEY: Fascinating. That’s such a prelude to everything you would go on to do.

LIVEK: Right. And I had no idea that I would do that. I thought that was just a tool to figure out how you can create content that was compelling and then convince advertisers that that content attracted a type of person to that you’d want to have on the air so you could sell them products.

SCHLEY: But did you get — first, were you a math guy? Were you a numbers kid when you grew up?

LIVEK: I didn’t fully realize that I was, but I was. I wasn’t particularly good at English, but numbers just came to me. It created my world.

SCHLEY: And so did you sort of get the research bug then? Was it provocative or interesting, what you were learning about?

LIVEK: It was actually quite interesting because I had a professor, Dr. John Kurtz who I still view as having changed my life who would never give me the answer to anything, but he would cause me to think about an answer and a direction. And he actually taught me that the entire communication industry was about attracting people and figuring out a way that they’d want to stay with you and watch your content.

SCHLEY: And you could monetize that.

LIVEK: You could monetize it. And that’s when I learned about what are those key tools of monetization. I had a professor, Dr. Gene Dybvig, who taught a curriculum around ratings and research. So think about a world where you don’t know what research is about except you’ve heard the word and they taught us how to do surveys. We studied Arbitron TV reports, Pulse radio reports, Nielsen television reports, and he taught us how to collect the information that went in there.

SCHLEY: You said something that was almost poetic moments ago. The craft of measuring the immeasurable almost, or at least the challenge of trying to understand what was going on beneath the surface in this changing media industry and you took a job with Arbitron straight away, correct?

LIVEK: Well, almost straight away. Out of college my goal was to get in advertising sales, but someone came to our university who had graduated from Southern Illinois and it was a gentleman who was with an executive search company that focused on newspapers, radio, television, and the emerging cable industry and they recruited me and wanted me to work for them. I thought it was a flyer, but what attracted me, I could be calling as a young guy on executives who were making things happen. I liked the idea of having someone mentor me to teach me how to carry myself beyond my chronological years and learning from them. Now, we did a lot of executive searches for CEOs of media companies and for engineers that were building the cable plants. I actually hated that business, but I learned so much about people and where I wanted to go. It further reinforced the value of information measuring all these different media types and it was fairly obvious to me that all of these media businesses were going to be changed by cable.

SCHLEY: You could tell.

LIVEK: Yeah, but I just didn’t understand how they were going to get changed.

SCHLEY: Because, Bill, this is I think late ’70s, early ’80s?

LIVEK: Yeah, this is around ’76 to ’78.

SCHLEY: There’s this thing called cable, you know it exists, and it deals with channels and a multiplicity of channels, but we didn’t have that many original cable networks at the time, did we?

LIVEK: No. We did not. And I don’t think anyone could have envisioned — the common idea was to — if there was going to be a breakthrough it was going to be a breakthrough like the super station of WTBS and what ultimately became the superstation of WGN.

SCHLEY: And so we didn’t like the executive search part of the world, but you did go to work for Arbitron then.

LIVEK: I did. I went to go work for Arbitron after that brief stint in the executive search business and I went to go work in the radio division that was chartered with measuring all local markets. And the thing I found interesting was the radio business was about selling tiny audiences compared with broadcast TV. And that’s also where I got a practical point of view that customers were never happy with the result that they were going to find. And we had a radio division and a TV division and what was the biggest opportunity that our television group was seeing was the decreasing television ratings —

SCHLEY: For the big broadcast guys?

LIVEK: Big broadcast because there were more independent stations that were starting to be out there. And cable starts getting introduced as a medium that needs to be measured because they need to sell ads.

SCHLEY: So the impetus was an advertising impetus? The advertisers wanted to know what the audiences were like?

LIVEK: It was a complete how do you legitimize what was some pretty crude research? You had these independent TV stations and some of the trailblazers in cable who were trying to sell ads doing things like getting postcards from viewers and trying to project that those postcards were actual viewers. So it was a very crude measure and advertisers found it interesting, but not compelling enough to spend any money other than some gratuitous sum.

SCHLEY: But the people like the mustachioed entrepreneur from Atlanta, Ted Turner, needed to convince advertisers that people really were watching his superstation.

LIVEK: He totally did. And that’s where I think the big breakthrough on cable measurement was when the Arbitron company agreed that if there were viewing in other markets from WTBS that it would be reported and it would be reported what they called below the line. It was TV viewing that was not native to that market. But that did sort of cause this catalytic event where other cable operators said what if I do something that’s similar to that? And they saw that Ted was starting to be able to monetize this content with advertisers and he saw that there was a desire with large advertisers, principally small ones at first, to find a real bargain with the super stations. And they found out they actually did sell products, but like all of our human need, it’s all right, you want to trust but verify.

SCHLEY: Very familiar, right.

LIVEK: Okay, concept that I know there’s people, you’re giving me evidence, but how many? So that’s where the whole idea of how do you build out an infrastructure that the cable industry could actually afford?

SCHLEY: Yeah, and Mr. Turner was not a shy man. You told a story about him literally clambering atop a desk to make his point at one time. What was that about?

LIVEK: I was living in New York. Actually, our office was right across the street from where we’re interviewing on 55th and Sixth and we heard some commotion on the other end of the hallway and there was whispers, what’s going on? And it’s where our CEO at the time, Ted Shaker’s office was. And we saw this guy as we walked down there on his desk and it turns out it was Ted Turner telling Ted Shaker, “I’m not leaving until you change this antiquated rule of how you treat WTBS.” And it was his persistence that started to break that bias against these cable stations.

SCHLEY: And, Bill, what was the measurement apparatus at the time? How did you count people in the home and figure out what in fact human beings were doing with their television?

LIVEK: By far it was a diary. It was a written mechanism that the research companies, like Arbitron, would randomly select a group of people and in television, and a separate diary for radio from separate people. It would be a device — it would be an instrument for seven days that they would write what they actually watched.

SCHLEY: That was the best we could do.

LIVEK: Best that we could do. Now, the Neilsen company, and Arbitron, was experimenting with household meters and household meters were actually with the Nielsen company on a national basis just to see what the household rating was, not the people behind. But they used a diary to get people information and they were also asked to fill it out. And then while I was at Arbitron it was becoming clearer and clearer that the diary would have a relatively short shelf life, but metering all of America was just not economically feasible. But then the wars of metering took hold between the Arbitron company and Nielsen where whoever was metering faster was getting ad agencies to switch to use their information. Then Arbitron or Nielsen could sell the television stations and cable companies for more money. But what it also uncovered with the meter, that you were watching things that you never reported on the diary because consumers didn’t actually think they were that important.

SCHLEY: So they wouldn’t bother to write them down?

LIVEK: Wouldn’t bother to write it down, right? The breakthroughs actually really started when HBO became an important entertainment source because then it was obvious that viewers were actually shifting and putting more minutes —

SCHLEY: That was the cultural sort of moment, if you will?

LIVEK: It was a cultural moment that a consumer would pay for television.

SCHLEY: But it’s interesting because there you didn’t have an advertising dimension or demand. It was a commercial free premium service.

LIVEK: But it also showed that who — the broadcasters actually want to understand who were these people and you couldn’t do it without research and they also wanted to show that people who were watching HBO were actually when they weren’t watching channel two, four, seven, etc. and that also bled over into the superstations, that they were watching there. So the sales pitch became you can reach the HBO audience by advertising on us.

SCHLEY: Brilliant, okay.

LIVEK: Okay? But you needed to prove that. And the Arbitron company and Nielsen became that battleground.

SCHLEY: This would not be the first time in your career that you went head-to-head with a company called Nielsen.

LIVEK: Oh, absolutely. You know, I’ve had the good fortune of always looking at how can number two be number one in categories that are unique? So at a certain moment at the ripe old age of 29 I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I wanted to own my own company or be part of a company where I had significant equity. So given that, now I’ve become, for my brief career, a relatively knowledgeable person on niche media, particularly radio because of the time I was spending. I left to join my partners that had a company, a startup company, called Birch Radio, Birch Research, that was measuring radio stations differently than what the Arbitron company was where at Birch we were measuring with calling people and asking them to recall what they listened to that day and what they listened to over the course of the last week so we could build models of cume. We also started to identify some of the unmet needs in television and one of them was cable. And we acquired at that time a business called Scarborough that measured in local markets what people were reading with their local newspaper, the radio stations they were listening to, and the television they were watching, broadcast and cable. But what was unique about that product that we had improved and expanded was it was measuring product consumption. It was measuring what people bought in Washington, DC and how it related to their viewing. Now, what we found out, we had a hit on our hands with radio and television, broadcast and cable, because as ratings were shrinking on broadcast and they were getting from super tiny to small on —

SCHLEY: On the cable side.

LIVEK: — cable, the only way that you could monetize that was not just to count the audience, but to describe the characteristics. So how many times in the last month did they shop at Walmart or JC Penney’s? Where did they go to buy replacement tires? Were they in the market for a new car or a used car?

SCHLEY: You’re closing the loop for one of the first times on purchase behavior versus media behavior, right?

LIVEK: For the first time we were closing on a local market basis that purchase behavior. And we expanded Scarborough out to, from when we acquired it, three markets to then 30 and then the top 100. So that was a great business. Turns out it was such a good business a Dutch company, VNU, wanted to acquire it. VNU later went on to acquire the Nielsen company, but at the time they wanted to acquire information companies about media and product consumption and we were one of their first investments and full out acquisitions in the US.

SCHLEY: Were you getting to know people in the cable programming world at this point?

LIVEK: Yes. We were because they were calling us in to discuss what are some of the solutions that they can have and our top solution was metering more markets faster with a household meter. And then you could develop mathematically ways to describe who was in front of the TV set and there were a lot of ways to do that, but the hardest problem was getting an adequate measure of what shows were being watched in what homes. The biggest barrier was actually that the sample sizes with those meters were woefully inadequate to serve cable.
So after we sold to VNU my business partner and I started to get involved in other measurement businesses where we saw this niche need. One of the niches was the Spanish language market where we invented techniques of measuring those who spoke only Spanish in the home and to this day the Nielsen company and others use some of the thinking and the actual enumeration that we had developed. But there was also a serendipitous event. As we were doing things like that an ad agency in Los Angeles, Western International, was called upon by a principal at Oak Communications and that principal was describing a world where set-top boxes could actually describe measurement and it can be used to trade advertising.

SCHLEY: This is a big moment though, you know?

LIVEK: A big moment. Now, the ad agency person, her first name was Amy, I won’t say the last name, but Amy told this gentleman Rich, “You ought to call the two Bills,” she called us, Bill Engel and Bill Livek, “they know more about measurement than most folks and you don’t fully comprehend it’s not just about technology, it’s about taking that tech and turning it into products that an ad agency can use.” So they called us. They were based in San Diego and we started to advise them.

SCHLEY: This is Oak?

LIVEK: This is Oak.

SCHLEY: A maker of cable TV converter boxes?

LIVEK: Making cable TV converter boxes. And their vision was to use this feature in the box to sell more boxes and our point of view was that may work, but it’s not going to scale. There were way too many manufacturers of set-top boxes and Oak actually had the original patents on measuring television viewing. So this group of folks named a company Adcom. This is before the internet so “com” was in there for communication.

SCHLEY: I’m with you.

LIVEK: “Ad” pretty obvious, measuring ads. And the idea, again, was to sell more boxes. As we did a prototype market in Cerritos, California, it became pretty obvious that an ad agency didn’t just want those small geographies, they wanted the whole market.

SCHLEY: But if I may, the allure of set-top measurement was — the romance was pretty evident. You could actually know what that box was tuned to at any given time.

LIVEK: You could know what that box was tuned to. And after the Cerritos test, I became convinced that measuring from devices that were already in the house for different reasons would rule the day because at the same time one of the best kept secrets that most people didn’t understand, samples actually work. We wouldn’t have medical research and solve awful problems if samples didn’t work. We can build model bridges that stands up to windstorms because of this. But you have to have a good sample. What was happening in America at this time, fewer people were home during the day and telephone answering machines became prevalent. So you couldn’t get into the house without first being screened by an answering machine.

SCHLEY: Great point.

LIVEK: And also, direct mail was surging as an advertising medium. So if you tried to get through the clutter of introducing yourself saying I’m going to call you, that introduction may have never made its way into the house.

SCHLEY: This posed for a research company major challenges.

LIVEK: Major problems. So and I’ll give the credit to my business partner, Bill Engel, he saw a world that big data sets, before the word was invented, was going to change the advertising business and the folks that will profit are the ones that had the most highly targeted programs, but first you had to build an infrastructure. So at Adcom what we decided to do was we weren’t going to sell more set-top boxes, but if we developed a low-cost meter that the cable company could install when they were rolling a truck —

SCHLEY: A separate physical device?

LIVEK: Separate physical device that looked like a couple of cigarette packs together and it was — had a little puck that was placed on the speaker and we invented audio matching technology. That we had a library of content that we were matching, we knew what was coming through the cable on the audio and we knew what was coming out of the speaker. So we could mask through a channel map what channels were on, on what program, on any given day. That would be stored on that device and then every night that device would have a modem, it would be plugged into the phone line and it would call back to Adcom and what we developed was an alternative inexpensive meter that was a fraction of the cost. So therein lies how the hell can we monetize that? We were fortunate enough that we found Continental Cable and we found an innovative group of people in Jacksonville, Florida who already had an ad sales organization and they saw — and Jacksonville, by the way, was unique at the time where they had the entire market of Jacksonville under Continental.

SCHLEY: It was not fragmented?

LIVEK: It was not fractionalized. So we wanted — we needed a full-scale demonstration of this with a paying customer and we got that with an executive, Michael Anapolsky.

SCHLEY: That’s the name I was trying to remember. Bright guy.

LIVEK: Bright guy in Jacksonville and Teresa Fletcher who worked for him. And Continental signed a contract with Adcom and we scaled and had meters in Jacksonville that measured all TV and it allowed the folks in Continental to sell more advertising.

SCHLEY: And you talked about samples. Can you divulge how many meters you had in place in Jacksonville?

LIVEK: There were thousands of households. So where meters did exist from the Arbitron — or from the Nielsen company at this point —

SCHLEY: But not very many.

LIVEK: There were hundreds. We had thousands. So what the thousands allowed us to do was to have great ratings not just on your big shows that generally were on broadcast, but on the tiny shows that were broadcast on —

SCHLEY: So finally, you’re surfacing some of these niche cable channels, right?

LIVEK: So the highly targeted cable channels that we called them were able to have ratings. Now, we also knew from our other experiences with Scarborough that having those ratings without context of what they were buying — so when we placed the meter in the home, we would ask them to tell us what type of car they owned, hold old it was, and ask them about 50 product consumption demographics. So the ratings that we produced were people that were watching CNN, they’re likely to be in market for a new car in the next 12 months.

SCHLEY: Because I think this is important. When people get seduced by set-top measurement, but it’s really just physically what the TV happened to be tuned to at a given time, but you were looking for more.

LIVEK: We were looking for more. So with that base from Continental, we were able to expand in another large city with Adelphia, Cleveland, and at TCI with two markets, two large markets. One of them was Denver and one of them was San Francisco. And so that was working quite well, but then we hit a bump in the road. The economy started to tank in the mid ’80s at this point. Or this was in the ’90s, I guess. And in the ’90s period we say okay, we need to convince TCI and Adelphia and Continental, who were largely owned by Comcast at this point, or the Cleveland market by Time Warner and we needed them to — because the ad agencies wanted to expand in a deliberate way to all markets. Because the economy was softening, they decided not. At the time we had GE Capital as one of our investors and private equity from Sandler Capital. At that point I decided as CEO of Adcom that we either expand it and if the cable industry wasn’t ready maybe we were too early. So we negotiated with the cable company stand down and we returned the money to the shareholders.


LIVEK: And it’s actually one of the ways I built the reputation. Sometimes you have to decide when you’re too early and sometimes you have to decide to withdraw and then look for a win-win with your customers and with your investors.

SCHLEY: Not everyone has that skill because it had to be at one level disappointing. You were on the brink, right?

LIVEK: We were on the brink. But you also had to respect —

SCHLEY: Reality.

LIVEK: — capital.

SCHLEY: Well, okay, okay.

LIVEK: And where I think maybe it’s because of my upbringing. My dad was a factory worker in Chicago that made Schwinn bicycles and ironically almost all the television sets that were consumed at the time were made in my neighborhood from Zenith, Motorola, and Admiral. And I saw folks who were getting by paycheck to paycheck and you had to watch your money that you had. And I took that orientation into my business life. So that work, Adcom, we did shut, but the idea was alive. And then we went and did two things. We saw there was a big opportunity with product usage information so we went to WPP, the ad agency group. They owned a company called Simmons Market Research Group. Simmons measured the American consumer on a national basis with thousands and thousands of brands in the media they used. And they were struggling because of the decline of magazines. Their primary revenue were magazines and we went to them and said we’d be interested in acquiring it. And at the same time, we started to work with Mastercard to monetize credit card data that was designed obviously just to have a cashless transaction, but to use it for market share reports. So we developed a 50-50 joint venture with Mastercard to develop market share reports for retailers and we had rights to merge that information into survey research like with Simmons so we could look at actual transactions, media people used, and all the brands that they bought. We then at Simmons expanded Simmons into local markets. So cable companies that had ad groups and television stations and ad agencies could use Simmons local to conduct business with.

SCHLEY: I have a question about — you started companies, you halted certain operations, you sold companies. As an executive how did you get to the point of understanding what a company was worth? It’s sort of a sideline question, but I think our audience is interested in it.

LIVEK: Price is what you pay, value is what you have and you get. I’ve learned that if you’re building watches the best part that you should specialize on is the spring. It’s the tiniest, but it’s the most important. And what I’ve learned in valuing businesses, you want to put your energies in the most critical piece of the infrastructure because then it’s worth a lot more. So of course, you have to be making money or should be making money, but that piece becomes so valuable if it’s complex to duplicate it. And that’s, I believe, at the core of where you start with what a company is worth.

SCHLEY: The watch spring analogy is perfect in that regard. You saw the beginning of addressable advertising, you saw the panoply of cable networks that were out there now and then we started to transform the technology a bit in the cable industry to serve video streams uniquely, discretely, on demand to households. What excited you about that budding business in the day?

LIVEK: So when I was at Experian, we saw that there was an opportunity there in measuring on-demand. And we heard of a little company in Portland, Oregon, Rentrak. I flew out there with the idea can we acquire or should we acquire Rentrak to be part of Experian. My takeaway was no, we shouldn’t because it was still way to early and it just wasn’t going to scale fast enough for Experian. When I decided that I wanted to take a little bit of a break at Experian we built their addressable advertising business, but I also wanted to get engaged in China to help Experian expand their information business in mainland China. My first trip there to Beijing, put it into context, most people were on bicycles, not driving in cars, but one of those trips, as we were looking at different information businesses to partner with in China, people knew my background and they invited me to a cable head end in a province, a smaller province, in China. And I went into this headend and they had TV sets for every channel and underneath it the number of households that had on every program.

SCHLEY: At the time?

LIVEK: At the time. It was real time feedback and everything that I learned up to this point, another light bulb moment.

SCHLEY: And you had the Rentrak — you knew in the back of your mind what Rentrak was about?

LIVEK: I knew what Rentrak was about, but Rentrak wasn’t doing this yet. But it was amazing me. And we looked at is this something Experian could get into? Not. So a few years later I decided okay, it was actually time to rethink my career, what I wanted to do. We completed our earnout with Experian and I actually wanted to invest on my own account in mainland China. I thought — now this would be 18 years ago maybe at this point — China was thriving, they were open to American business, and there were super smart individuals that were — Chinese — that were educated in the United States at places like University of Illinois, Michigan State, and they went back to start advertising businesses, but I could see they were missing the skill set on measurement. So I was on my way to fly over to Beijing. I was living in Ft. Lauderdale, connecting in New York, and my cell phone rings and I normally don’t answer —

SCHLEY: Unfamiliar calls?

LIVEK: — unknown numbers. This time my plane was late and I wanted to talk to someone, anyone, so I took the call. And this guy starts talking to me and I think he’s trying to sell me securities so I say, “I’m sorry, I’m not interested.” And then he makes a comment, “We’re the company that funded Nielsen to take private.” I said, “Who are you and what do you do again?” And he said, “I’m Brent Rosenthal and I’m with WR Huff and we have an investment in a company called Rentrak and I’d like to pick your brain.” I said, “Okay. I know Rentrak, I looked at them, what do you want to pick my brain?” He said, “We want to grow that business and your name comes up as someone who can help us. Would you meet with me, have a meal with me?” I said, “Brent, I don’t think so. I’m on my way to Beijing, I’m heading to New York, I’m getting a flight tomorrow.” And he said, “How about breakfast?” I said, “I already have a breakfast.” He said, “What time is your breakfast?” I said, “Nine.” He said, “Can I meet you at 7:00?”

SCHLEY: Brent is a kind of a pursuing guy.

LIVEK: He was so persistent. I said, “Okay, I’ll see you. I’m staying at the Cornell Club. I’ll see you there at 7:00.” He comes and he tells me they’ve acquired 10% of the shares of Rentrak and he and his partner knows that that company can be a lot more. And Rentrak at the time was developing the standard in measuring video on-demand by taking feeds from every headend around the United States and taking them and cleaning them up so the programmers could have an accurate view of what the viewership was and the counts of the number of households. And at the same time, they had a fledgling movie measurement business that competed with the Nielsen company. And literally on the back of a napkin at the Cornell Club I outlined what I would do if I were him.

SCHLEY: Really?

LIVEK: And I said, “Brent, I’ve got to go.” And he said, “Would you be interested in meeting with our board about this?” I said no. I said, “I’m really interested in doing these things in China.” So he kept pursuing me, pursuing me, and I did agree to have dinner with the Rentrak board members and I described what I would do at Rentrak if I were them and what I would do was to find a national footprint that had viewing in every local market, all 210, so that was going to be a satellite footprint. It was either going to be with Dish or Direct and then you needed an in-depth database that had a lot of characteristics that you could mathematically model the demographics from and the best database was AT&T U-verse at the time. And I said, “What I would do if I were you is cut a deal with Dish and cut a deal with AT&T.”

SCHLEY: So you’ve got the big picture —

LIVEK: Right.

SCHLEY: And AT&T U-verse was sort of a newcomer on the cable television scene, an overbuilder, we might say?

LIVEK: Right. And then with my experience that we had with Charter that was quite good, [I said,] “cut a deal with Charter on their data and you can project in cable so you’ll have satellite, telco, and cable and mathematically you can build massive samples in local markets with more accurate information and then merge with credit card data and with auto registration from Polk, now IHS Auto, in voter registration additional demographics.” And they said, “Look, this sounds complex. Do you want to do it for us and be CEO?” I said, “I actually don’t. I’ve been CEO of enough startup companies and worked for enough large companies. I actually enjoy now being an investor.” They again pursued me and with the idea that we’d like to do it. I did it and when I entered Rentrak we did a number of things very quickly. We cut deals with Charter, with Dish, with AT&T. We hired some of the best math scientists, who are still there today, to help us build a service that measured all 210 local markets that we could democratize television viewing whether it was broadcast, cable, satellite, or telco in all 210 markets and then have a service that you could also buy national networks off of. And at the same time at Rentrak we saw an opportunity to measure around the world everyone who went to the movies whether it was in a physical movie theater or whether it was on-demand and we moved very quickly to consolidate that market globally where today it’s Comscore measuring the movie measurement business.

SCHLEY: But Bill, when you took over as CEO of Rentrak who was writing you checks? Who were the — who needed to know what you knew?

LIVEK: It was the television networks, largely the cable networks were the big clients.

SCHLEY: Like a USA Network or?

LIVEK: USA Network.


LIVEK: Scripps Network. They were our big clients.

SCHLEY: And they wanted to know what?

LIVEK: They wanted to know if their network for Home and Garden — HGTV, what kind of distribution they actually had within a market and then how many homes were they in and were they actually viewing their on-demand programs? Because think about it, on-demand, I don’t think a cable operator said this was the future. It was sort of how could the programmers get more distribution knowing that we had a DVR but the DVR could only record one program at a time. So the common use of a DVR was the primetime schedule and you generally were not recording cable. So on-demand became this super DVR, so to speak.

SCHLEY: Exactly.

LIVEK: You were — someone else was recording everything —

SCHLEY: On your behalf sort of.

LIVEK: Yeah, on your behalf. But there was no measurement or understanding of it so it became almost impossible to sell ads on on-demand.

SCHLEY: I see. And so my presumption, which I think is wrong, had been that you were more associated with the movie component of on-demand, tracking how many orders to whatever feature film might have been popular at the time.

LIVEK: Well, we got our name and our cash flow from measuring movie rentals from mom-and-pop video stores and then later the big ones, Blockbuster and the like. And that was a great business and it was sort of a business that we looked at and said all right, should we get into the content business of renting it or should we get into the measurement business? Obviously, Netflix went into the content business.

SCHLEY: You guys went into the measurement business.

LIVEK: They got it righter than us. We went into the measurement business.

SCHLEY: Why couldn’t an HGTV simply ask its cable affiliate, “Hey, how many streams are you sending out?” What was the tension there?

LIVEK: The tension was they used that to negotiate carriage so no one believes someone else’s numbers. And it was also a task that cable companies were not actually set up for to have accurate numbers. They had abouts. And the need for a Scripps at the time was to have the most accurate numbers so they could conduct business with the cable companies, but also sell ads. The cable company actually was less concerned at that moment in time about selling ads.

SCHLEY: That’s what I thought. Yeah, okay. And so that business worked though? Like you made Rentrak into a —

LIVEK: We took the market cap of Rentrak from 50 million to $1 billion at its height and Rentrak was a publicly traded company, but then the business again started to shift. We built a census-based currency with TV where it was composed of every cable operator that was significant so it was Charter, the Time Warner markets, Comcast, Cox, a lot of the small operators. It was Dish and Direct TV with satellite and of course AT&T U-verse. But streaming was starting and we had not focused on cross platform and digital, but Comscore did.

SCHLEY: A different company called Comscore.

LIVEK: Different company called Comscore. And we were not blind to what the internet was going to be, but we also were practical that we were able to do two things really well, one was measure TV and the other was to measure the movie business whether it was on-demand movies or whether it was at a theatrical location, and built really good businesses, but the market started to see the ad agencies that measuring the internet content was going to become increasingly important along with TV.

SCHLEY: Again, just tracking human behavior, right? Tracking the way we use media.

LIVEK: Tracking human consumption behavior. And WPP at the time was a common shareholder in Rentrak and a common shareholder in Comscore. They cajoled us to merge the businesses together with the idea of creating superior cross platform measurement whether it was on the internet or whether it was on linear, whether it was on-demand and today streaming.

SCHLEY: And the press, of which I am a part, always likes these easy narratives so it was — everybody always framed Comscore as a Neilsen killer or a rival of Nielsen. I’m sure that was partly true, but was there room for both companies in the marketplace?

LIVEK: Totally. I come from the point of view that we need two of everything. Where there’s a Coke there’s a Pepsi. Where there’s an Experian in credit service there’s an Equifax. So let’s take the analogy of credit bureaus. It’s an inexact science even though they do have a lot of exact things. Your credit score is going to be different in Experian than in Equifax. I know mine is. What the banks do with that information, they make a judgement. They have a goalpost basically and do they want to shoot in the center? Well, depends. They want the level of arbitrage back and forth. When it comes to measurement of the internet or measuring of TV the customers also say they want one, but they really want two. Because they want to see with different methods can there be a different number? It’s sort of like getting an estimate of what your house is worth. You’ll get an appraisal and the appraisal will be within a distance. It could be this or it could be that, right? And when it comes to media measurement it is like that too. So I always believe that there’s room for two strong measurement companies and then there will be a lot of other companies that are producing information to serve niche needs. But and I think that’s going to be around in our investment horizon because we can’t handle more than that. It’s harder to get a judgement. You end up looking at all of them and you become confused. It’s sort of like if you ask your Apple phone how to get me to Newark airport and it gave you five choices. You’re not going to know which path to take. It gives you a principal choice and then it gives you one without tolls. And that the human mind can deal with, right?

SCHLEY: Right, of course.

LIVEK: Similarly, in measuring television and the internet. You know, two core measures, Neilsen continues to focus on samples, Comscore focuses on census. Neilsen continues to focus on describing a consumer by age and gender. ComScore defines the consumer by the products that we buy, the lifestyles that we have, and who we are as consumers and then where we’re being entertained and informed on all the different screens.

SCHLEY: I want to ask you about what’s next, but I also want to ask you about a second anecdote that really speaks to the power of targeted marketing and advertising and that was the Obama presidential campaign of 2008. Obviously, he won two successive terms, but that media team used cable television in such an interesting way and I think it was at Rentrak you were part of that. Can you talk a little bit about that?

LIVEK: Yeah, I’m proud to say that the information that we produced at Rentrak helped Obama get elected. And it helped him get elected because we showed him where the likely persuadable voters were watching TV. Not that Bill Livek was a persuadable voter, but people like Bill Livek so they then in an addressable way — this is where addressable advertising becomes full circle — could buy ads on cable TV reaching these types of homes that have these characteristics. So there wasn’t enough money in the world to do that on a mass basis, but there was enough money to do it on a highly targeted basis and it showed that when the results were in that many people believe the reason Obama got elected was because his ad budget was spent very differently —

SCHLEY: Than a spray and pray kind of approach, right?

LIVEK: Right, exactly. And that then was a seminal moment also that advertisers started to see that at scale we could use addressable advertising or surrogates of it, how you could place on a cable network or broadcast network using these highly targeted segments. And today with streaming it’s basically that type of technology where the streamers, whether it’s a Paramount Plus or a Peacock or a Disney, they’re selling their audiences on this addressable type of form. And the traditional cable networks are, I think, reacting very well. And who’s going to be the big winner here? I think it’s the infrastructure companies, it’s those with broadband that are delivering it. I think it’s also the consumers are going to be the big winner. We will see less ads, we’re going to see more relevant ads, and the consumer’s going to tolerate them.

SCHLEY: That was literally the question I was about to ask you, but what else do you see forthcoming and how will research inform and influence what’s to come?

LIVEK: I think we’re just at the start of big data sets being the core of measurement redeploying things that were developed for a different reason. Getting back to the cable set-top box, getting back to credit cards, getting back to credit service reports, databases from IHS Auto, the cars that people own, how old they are, getting all of these databases and in a privacy compliant way putting them together while at the same time striving for accuracy on those data sets. I do believe that where this will net out in the future is pretty much where it started. There was Neilsen and Arbitron and I believe in the end there will be Comscore and Nielsen doing things very differently and seeing a world that all these other data sets with those two dominant ones looking at scores. Like we have a FICO credit score where it takes a lot of other data inputs. So we’re at the start of, I think, a very exciting time and as we’re doing this video AI is on everyone’s tongue. AI, I do believe, artificial intelligence, is going to change the research world. The challenge along the way is to make sure the databases that are being used are truthful.

SCHLEY: Absolutely.

LIVEK: And that’s where the whole idea of auditing these databases — you know, we’ve been doing it for a long, long time, it’s going to become more important in the future.

SCHLEY: A trusted agent who interprets information.

LIVEK: And as we do this video at first it was the Broadcast Rating Council, then as cable became important it became the Media Rating Council and it will be the Media Rating Council, I believe, or its successor by some other name in the future that has to be the auditor. It’s like having audited financials.

SCHLEY: Of course, right. You’ve done a lot in your career and you’ve seen so much. What has been, you know, besides the pay check and the remuneration and the building of businesses, what’s been fun? What has really sort of been satisfying about your career, would you say?

LIVEK: One of my professors at SIU is Dr. John Kurtz said, “Bill, whatever you decide to do make sure you enjoy it because if you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” And I actually believe I’ve never worked a day in my life.

SCHLEY: Amazing. And then I’m going to sneak one more in. You mentioned your longtime business partner, the other Bill [Engel]. Who — maybe one or two people who have been extraordinarily influential in your journey.

LIVEK: Well, there have been so many people.


LIVEK: And it’s been along the way. Ted Shaker who was the CEO of Arbitron with the Ted Turner conversation. He taught me the importance of quality and fix and finish. We did printed rating reports and if the printed report wasn’t perfectly bound and perfectly printed —

SCHLEY: I love that, the esthetics.

LIVEK: — it created an image that it wasn’t right, so quasi-quality. Ted Shaker had a big, big, big influence on me. And there was a gentleman, Erwin Ephron, who was in the ad business who was one of the first individuals that could demystify statistical concepts. Erwin had a great influence on me, on how I communicate difficult statistical concepts in a way that a seventh-grade person could understand it. And along the way there have been so many customers that I have learned from. Irwin Gotlieb who ran Group M in his days, learned so much from him. But the number of people I think are too numerous to mention.

SCHLEY: Of course.

LIVEK: But I’ve always been lucky that I realized at a young age that I know very little and by listening to other people you can learn a whole lot.

SCHLEY: Very good words to end with. This has been a fascinating and captivating look back, but also a look forward at the world of media measurement, where it’s been and where it’s going, and we had the number one expert to walk us through it. Bill Livek, thank you so much for spending some time with us.

LIVEK: Thank you very much.

SCHLEY: For Syndeo Institute at the Cable Center and the Hauser Oral History Series, I’m Stewart Schley. Thank you for tuning in.

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