Waiting Game For Better Ratings Continues

Twenty-five of the 26 largest markets that now rely solely on Local People Meters are not expected to get the added benefit of Portable People Meters until January. “It’s a strange state of flux,” says Katz Media's Stacey Schulman. "We’ve got multiple methodologies — different things added and subtracted. And a lot of data [for larger markets] that was supposed to be received in the summer will start to come out in January.”

Improved Nielsen ratings for the largest TV markets that had been expected this fall have been delayed until the new year, according to broadcasters.

Twenty-five of the 26 largest markets that now rely solely on Local People Meters are not expected to get the added benefit of Portable People Meters until January, the broadcasters now say they are being told by Nielsen.

No. 25 DMA Raleigh-Durham, N.C. (the only top 25 market without LPMs), and 18 other markets that currently use set meters will also have to wait until January for the boost from the PPMs.

Then, sometime during the second quarter of 2019, the remaining 12 set-meter markets and 14 code reader markets are expected to receive ratings enhanced by so-called return path data from cable and satellite set-top boxes.

“It’s a strange state of flux,” says Stacey Schulman, chief marketing officer for Katz Media Group. “We’re in a lot of transition right now. We’ve got multiple methodologies — different things added and subtracted. And a lot of data [for larger markets] that was supposed to be received in the summer will start to come out in January.”

Nielsen is using five basic methodologies for spot TV:


  • Local People Meters are connected to TVs. Viewers check in with a remote control to indicate which person in the household is watching TV, generating demo ratings. The meters are also used for Nielsen’s National People Meter panel.
  • Set meters also connect to the TV and passively record what program is tuned in. There is no button pushing involved.
  • Code readers sit next to TVs and track total viewing by “listening” for encoded audio signals.
  • Return path data is derived from cable or satellite set-top boxes.
  • Portable People Meters are wearable devices that capture both in-home and out-of-home viewing.

“We’re struggling at the moment to keep pace with what’s going on and balance the fact that we don’t have all the [new] data. It’s a little bit crazy,” says Schulman.

Kelly Abcarian, SVP, product leadership at Nielsen, maintains that things are on track. “There’s really no delay in the deployment. We’ve been working alongside our clients, being very transparent on the timelines. We’re insuring that we move fast, but, more importantly, that we get it right.”

Kerry Oslund, VP of strategy and business development at Tribune Broadcasting, says there is no rush. “We’d rather have Nielsen get it right and prove that it is right before we roll it out as currency. “We don’t want it fast and wrong.”

In any event, the new-currency rollout scenarios are just one indication that while there have been big advances in audience measurement of spot TV, the process of providing deeper insights into how many and who is watching is fraught with challenges.

One issue relates to Nielsen’s new methodologies in the smaller markets previously measured with diaries. There’s also debate about how to move from transactions based on ratings to those based on impressions. And some agencies are pushing for the measurement of commercial minutes on the local level.

On the positive side: diaries went the way of the dodo bird earlier this year in 138 markets. (Nielsen no longer measures Juneau, Alaska, and Glendive, Mont.) “That’s the biggest change in the history of Nielsen,” commented Nancy Larkin, SVP, director of local television at Horizon Media.

The ex-diary markets are now receiving currency based on various combinations of methodologies — including return path, Nielsen National People Meter and code readers.

The different market “formulas” take into account such factors as over-the-air viewership not available in set-box data, which can be measured by code readers. OTA can account for up to 65% of news and sports viewership on stations alone, depending on the network, according to Nielsen.

Rather than just receiving numbers on the four sweeps months, the ex-diary markets are now getting them for all 12 months based on 365 days of viewing. There are also four currencies available instead of one: live-plus-same-day, live-plus-one, live-plus-three and live-plus-seven days.

But those changes come with at least one problem: comparing audience guarantees made months ago based on the diary currency with what stations have actually delivered more recently, according to the new currency. The results can be quite different.

“It’s challenging because we don’t have the diary methodology anymore, but that’s what we bought on,” says Horizon’s Larkin.

“We have to explain to our clients that the 100 GRPs [gross rating points] you thought you were getting is actually 80. The same number of people may be watching, but they’re not handwriting in diaries. The markets are metered. It’s flipping the currency on its head,” Larkin adds.

When diaries were in use, there could be a 40% to 60% “bounce” in ratings for a given show from one period to the next, says Kathy Doyle, EVP of local investment at Magna Global. “We’re a little too early to judge the return path data. I hope that it’s going to be much more stable.”

While the industry deals with new methodologies, there’s a spirited debate between its members about how to move local TV transaction guarantees beyond ratings to impressions, which are used by other media, like digital.

“The cross-platform issues related to impressions are super challenging,” says Tribune’s Oslund. “Let’s say we all agree on impressions as the currency. Are all impressions equal? Clearly not. An impression on a 100-inch HD TV is different than an impression for a banner ad on a mobile device.”

“I do think we’ll get there. But it’s not as easy as flipping a switch,” adds Rob Weisbord, chief revenue officer for Sinclair Broadcast Group. Balking at impressions “is almost like being in the European community and saying you don’t want to be on the euro.”

Oslund believes that both ratings and impressions can be used as currencies; it’s not a zero-sum game. “And if we can’t come to an organic agreement, those writing the checks [i.e., agencies] will make the choice for us.”

The problems for spot go deeper than the impressions debate. “[Local TV has] a different measurement than national,” says Ed Gaffney, managing partner and director of implementation research and marketplace analytics at GroupM North America.

“National is commercial measurement; local is program measurement per quarter hour. It’s a translation that shouldn’t need to be done, at least in the top metered markets. We should have moved to commercial measurement a while ago.”

Nielsen’s Abcarian explains the local commercial-measurement sticking points this way: “Measurement is a team sport. There is work involved … to ensure the accuracy and quality of the commercial data, and many big data sources still are not of the quality required to drive this level of precision in local markets.”

In addition to all of the new TV ratings data rolling out in the first half of 2019, Nielsen will be focused on some other initiatives that affect spot, such as partnering with stations on more measurement across devices and platforms. And it’s also working on rolling out more qualitative data next year related to such things as consumer purchasing intentions.

Its rival, Comscore, is tackling cross-platform measurement in 2019. “In the past we haven’t been able sell, in a single cohesive package, the aggregate of an audience across all platforms. That’s what we’re launching, starting in Q1, and ultimately, we’ll be in 100 markets by Q3 or Q4,” says Steve Walsh, Comscore’s EVP of local markets.

What about station commercial measurement? “We want to measure everything,” Walsh says, noting that, like Nielsen, Comscore does handle commercial measurement on the national level. “Campaigns won’t be local for 2019, but that’s an aggressive target for us for 2020.”

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