The ratings service is beginning to replace paper diaries with new electronic devices it’s developed that will track viewing by “listening” to the audio portion of TV shows watched and a Nielsen “audio watermark” embedded in the signals transmitted by stations. It is starting with 14 of the 154 markets that still use diaries.
Nielsen: Diaries Finally On The Way Out
Nielsen’s diary-based system for measuring local TV viewership — a system that has been in place in one way or another for at least 60 years — is beginning to be dismantled and will “eventually” be retired, TVNewsCheck has learned.
The dismantling has already begun in 14 markets designated by Nielsen, confirmed Shad Family, SVP of local media for Nielsen. The 14 are the first of the 154 markets in which hand-written “viewing diaries” — paper booklets in which Nielsen participants record by hand what they’ve watched on TV — are still the primary source for viewership data.
The diaries are to be replaced by new, electronic devices developed by Nielsen that will track viewing in Nielsen households by “listening” to the audio portion of any TV shows that are being watched and a Nielsen “audio watermark” embedded in the signals transmitted by TV stations. The devices — or “code readers,” as Nielsen is calling them — are about the size of a Roku or Apple TV set-top box, Family said.
The new system will enable the diary-based markets to obtain Nielsen viewership data 12 months a year, instead of just the current four sweeps months (February, May, July and November).
Broadcasters are looking forward to the eventual extinction of the diary system. But because they have depended for so long on the data derived from diaries, they are advising Nielsen to proceed slowly and carefully with the conversion.
“We are anxious to see the diary method going away and the hybrid meters work in medium and small markets,” said Jon Rand, COO of Northwest Broadcasting, owner of several stations in small markets. “We just want to make sure that Nielsen doesn’t skip a step and is doing all it can to not have this come off as half-baked.”
One of the markets where Northwest owns a Fox affiliate — Yakima-Pasco-Richland-Kennewick, Wash. (DMA 122) — happens to be one of the 14 markets being converted. The others are: Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek, Mich. (DMA 40), Harrisburg-Lancaster-Lebanon-York, Pa. (45), Fresno-Visalia, Calif. (54), Albany-Schenectady-Troy, N.Y. (58), Mobile, Ala.-Pensacola (Fort Walton), Fla. (59), Flint-Saginaw-Bay City, Mich. (70), Tucson (Sierra Vista), Ariz. (71), Paducah, Ky.-Cape Girardeau, Mo. (81), Madison, Wis. (82), Charleston, S.C. (95), Reno, Nev. (107), Traverse City-Cadillac, Mich. (118), and Santa Barbara-Santa Maria-San Luis Obispo, Calif. (123).
Nielsen is portraying the conversion as a way to finally do away with a paper-based measuring system that has long been fraught with difficulty, particularly in a multichannel era in which television viewing has become far too complicated to be recorded by hand, item by item, in a viewing diary. The company has previously floated ideas and plans to phase out the diaries, but this one is already becoming a reality, Family said, with household recruitment and installation of the new code readers already under way.
He said Nielsen hopes to start producing data from the homes it is installing now “toward the end of this year going into the beginning of next year.”
“We want to continue to invest in our local business,” Family told TVNewsCheck, explaining why Nielsen is going ahead with this conversion plan now. “Our local business is very important to us. We want to support local television.”
In addition, he said: “We recognize that we have to improve the measurements. We wanted to come up with a way where the paper diary is eventually retired and we think this code reader approach gives us one avenue to do that.”
Along with the conversion, Nielsen plans on increasing the size of the audience sample in each of the converted markets, Family added.
Broadcasters are already asking two key questions about the new system: How will demographic data be collected? And, will this new system result in higher prices for Nielsen data?
On the price question, Family would neither confirm nor deny the possibility of a price hike, although some station sources are telling TVNewsCheck that Nielsen has already floated the possibility of a 20% increase — or “premium” — in order to cover Nielsen’s investment in the new system. Family wouldn’t divulge how much Nielsen is investing in the initial 14-market rollout, or for the rest of the rollout in the coming months and years.
“We have a fairly simple philosophy,” Family said, when asked about possible price increases. “And that is, we have to prove to our clients that this is an improvement over their previous service and that any talk of fee increases or price increases, we have to earn that. Right now, our focus is on improving the service.”
As for the demographics question, Northwest’s Rand — who heard a Nielsen pitch on the new code readers earlier this week at a meeting of the Independent Television Group in San Antonio (a meeting held in conjunction with the NAB Small Market Exchange) – characterized the demo-data collection issue as “a little bit of a mystery.”
Family explained that Nielsen plans to derive demographic data by essentially marrying data about the make-up of its code-reader households with more-specific behavioral data in similar households derived from the nearest local-people-meter market.
“We know what’s being watched, we know who’s in the home,” he said of the code-reader homes. “The final step is to apply the demographics of who is watching to the tuning or the viewing that we pick up with the code reader. So we get that intelligence from the national and the local people-meter homes that we have in the region of our diary market.… We take the intelligence from the regional homes and apply probability to who is doing the watching” in the code-reader markets.
“I understand where they are getting their information,” said Rand, who said he hopes the advertising community will understand it too. “If the advertising agencies buy that information, I guess it’s going to be acceptable. There still should be a higher level of accuracy than we get with diaries.”
Additional reporting by Harry A. Jessell in San Antonio.