Finding parents without a story about their kids stumbling onto inappropriate content on an open video sharing platform is like finding a leprechaun or unicorn. They don’t exist.
So, in 2014, when A Parent Media Co. Inc. (APMC) launched Kidoodle.TV®, a Safe Streaming™ OTT service allowing children to select and stream age-appropriate content adhering to Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) guidelines, it attracted swift plaudits and imitators.
Expanding access to Kidoodle.TV with the launch of a “freemium” app removed financial barriers to families by allowing advertising. However, this presented a bigger issue: The sourced ads were not always appropriate.
Adding to the issue was the expansion prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic — site traffic increased 2,600% from March to December 2020 alone — which meant a greater volume of ads. As a result, ineffective automated monitoring systems presented problems for Kidoodle.TV, its young audience and the AVOD industry at large.
Ads for streaming apps aren’t sourced like old-school TV. Programmatic streaming ads are submitted in real time with limited information about their content. APMC’s chief technology officer Daniel Riddell says, “The traditional COPPA flag used in ad requests didn’t always work at preventing ‘bad’ ads coming through programmatic sources, nor was it meant to moderate ad content. So, we built a real-time human review layer to interact with programmatic markets, which evolved into the stand-alone ad classification and monetization solution that is Safe Exchange™.”
In the connected television (CTV) universe, many publishers utilize supply-side platforms (SSPs) to access demand and fill ad availability. The SSPs interact with ad exchanges, where artificial intelligence selects available advertising in milliseconds, in theory correlating advertisers’ audience goals with publishers’ audience-specific ad inventories to ensure ad content and programming are a match. But mismatches happen often.
“We love AI, but the efficacy of it isn’t always where it needs to be to work with a children’s audience. You also need a human’s judgment,” notes Gabe Thomas, APMC’s vice president of strategy for Safe Exchange. “Our technology will reject ads, but only humans can approve ads – that’s how we keep things safe.”
Traditional programmatic filtering relies on advertisers categorizing their ads accurately, but Thomas, who manages Safe Exchange, says a surprisingly large percentage of ads are classified incorrectly and self-reporting often misses unsuitable content. For instance, Safe Exchange’s human reviewers flagged ads for cleaning products with characters drinking wine, adult-toned movie trailers and soap commercials revealing excessive flesh. Then there’s the chips ad that stumbled only in its final scene, when the actors exclaimed, “They’re f—ing great!”
APMC’s co-founder, president and chief product officer Neil Gruninger says, “Every ad that passes through Safe Exchange, whether direct or programmatic, undergoes a unique, proprietary, in-house ‘creative review’ process against internal standards.” Safe Exchange currently reviews ads 24/7.
“Forty percent of the ads we receive through the open market are blocked by our Safe Exchange process based on misclassification, inappropriate creatives, low quality, defects technically and other means to influence the audience by pretending to be ads they are not,” says Gruninger. “Having humans monitor ads is the only true way to ensure these are captured and blocked.”
“Advertising is a key part of the viewing experience, and we are very aware that streamers will abandon an ad-supported video service if they are annoyed or displeased by the ad experience,“ Riddell shares.
However, the issues greatly exceed inappropriate content for kids, and once APMC realized that what’s good for Mother Goose is also good for Father Gander, it began offering its Safe Exchange service to other third-party publishers and distribution platforms looking to monetize content in a brand-safe way.
“The publishers and content creators have their brands as well as their promise to their streamers to provide a certain level of content and match their content to their audiences. Ultimately, the ads are a part of that content,” Thomas says, indicating that “bad” ads, which could include a repurposed “click here” web ad or one stretched and pixelated, may destroy consumer confidence in the publishers and content creators and pose a risk to brands.
Advertisers can also be negatively affected. “There are only a certain number of ads in a commercial break,” adds Thomas, noting that advertisers expect their spots to run alongside similar caliber ads and brand-appropriate content. “If you’re a toy company and your ad runs next to a highly inflammatory political ad, that’s not something brands want to see. Safe Exchange can help by taking these situations off the table.”
Besides sourcing and reviewing ads through its SSP and ad-exchange service, Safe Exchange works to maximize potential revenue and “employs a real-time bidding solution to optimize yield across ad pods and filter for duplicate creatives within a pod,” Gruninger says. “This results in seamless server-side ad insertion for optimum user experience and optimized monetization opportunities for publishers.”
As streaming service giants, including those specializing in children’s entertainment, begin to add AVOD tiers, Riddell warns that mistakes come at enormous costs. “Time has taught us that the current system of transacting programmatic CTV ads is broken. AVOD is still young and there are a lot of lessons to be learned and efficiencies to be built,” he says.
Gruninger adds, “We deployed Safe Exchange as a service over the last year to several different groups. They might be publishers looking for monetization opportunities or platforms simply looking for ad moderation solutions on the programmatic side, but unequivocally, we have seen increasing interest in our service. This has validated our business model as we continue to scale.”
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