Nielsen’s Modernization Continues

It’s so fun watching the Nielsen ratings service get dragged, kicking and screaming, into the late 20th Century. (Maybe somebody should tell ’em that they’re still behind?)


Nielsen agrees that some people watch TV on things besides TVs, and maybe they should do something about that
by Sean O’Neal

After years of complaints that it’s a technologically antiquated system that relies on skewed sample data that doesn’t accurately reflect the viewing audience, the Nielsen Co. is taking steps to address at least one of those complaints by changing the definition of “TV viewing” to also include video streamed via websites, gaming systems, and mobile devices. The decision (which still isn’t binding, because why rush to change things after a mere decade or so of shifting viewing habits?) came out of a meeting of the What Nielsen Measures Committee, a group composed of representatives from various TV networks, ad agencies, and would-be sponsors who, using their combined creative talent, opted to call themselves the “What Nielsen Measures Committee.” That same quick-thinking also helped them to realize, after only a little over a year of getting together, that maybe they should consider doing something about how some people watch TV on computers these days.

Should they move forward on the initiative, by the start of the fall season in September, Nielsen expects to have new hardware and software that’ll incorporate viewing numbers from streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon, consoles such as the Xbox and Playstation, and “some use” of iPads and other tablets. A promised second phase—rolling out on an even “slower timetable”—will incorporate all of those sources more comprehensively, eventually hoping to devise a ratings system that captures any kind of video viewing from any device.

Of course, all of that video viewing will still have to be within the home of a Nielsen family: The initiative still refers only to the 23,000 chosen viewers Nielsen samples, and it still excludes any “out-of-home” viewing. Nielsen also won’t be able to use, for example, Netflix data in its ratings measurements, unless Netflix agrees to encode its programming signals to work with Nielsen’s software. (Given that Netflix isn’t “motivated” to talk about exact viewing numbers, that seems unlikely.)

Nevertheless, it’s a slight step in the right direction that—along with those now-traditional Live+7 DVR measurements—should help networks more accurately assess a show’s ratings going forward, or at least feel slightly better about themselves. Of course, it’s still probably wishful thinking to presume that widening the scope like this can save forever on-the-bubble cult shows like Community orHappy Endings. For that you’ll have to wait until Nielsen finds a way to measure a show’s ratings in tweets and GIFs.