I find it encouraging to learn that Nielsen is finally moving ahead with plans to replace paper diaries with electronic boxes that count viewership passively. People in the sample homes won’t have to do anything except, I suppose, keep the boxes plugged in. However, I’m a bit skeptical that Nielsen can pull this off
Nielsen TV viewing diaries should be artifacts of bygone days of television like B&W sets, midnight sign-offs, UHF dials and Rowdy Yates.
Yet, the ratings they generate are still used by hundreds of small- and medium-market stations serving half of U.S. TV homes to transact billions of dollars of spot business every year.
This, despite the near universal understanding that the diary ratings are deeply flawed and with each passing sweeps month more poorly reflect who’s actually watching what.
The diaries lost their accreditation from the Media Ratings Council four years ago.
And last year, the Council for Research Excellence, a group funded by Nielsen to pinpoint the problems and perhaps point to some solutions, took a deep dive into 11 years of diary data and found that its household ratings fell outside an acceptable margin of error nearly 90% of the time.
People, it turns out, aren’t very reliable keepers of paper diaries. Probably never were. And recruiting fair samples of homes is getting tougher and tougher, the CRE also found.
So, I found it encouraging to learn that Nielsen is finally moving ahead with plans to replace the diaries with electronic boxes that count viewership passively. People in the sample homes won’t have to do anything except, I suppose, keep the boxes plugged in.
The boxes — code readers — figures out what’s being watched by listening to audio codes implanted in the programming by stations as well as to the programming audio itself. At least that’s my understanding.
Representatives of Nielsen briefed members of the Independent Television Group who met in San Antonio this week prior to the NAB Small Market Exchange on the initiative. Nielsen later confirmed the plans to our reporter Adam Buckman.
Nielsen plans to start in 14 markets over the next several months. It’s a modest beginning. Diaries are the only source of ratings in 154 markets serving 30% of homes, and they provide demo ratings in another 31 markets. Stations in the top 25 markets get their household and demos from Nielsen’s all-electronic local people meters.
ITG members with whom I spoke were a little wary of Nielsen’s plan, mostly, I think, because they know the new service is going to be more expensive. One executive told me that Nielsen wanted to jack up fees 20%. Nielsen would not comment on pricing.
Money has long been the sticking point in improving small-market ratings. Broadcasters complain about the diaries, but balk at paying for a better system.
The ITG members also had more substantive concerns, chief among them the methodology for determining demographics.
As I understand it, Nielsen plans to deduce who in each sample home is watching any particular program by combining what they know about who’s living the home with the data coming from nearby LPM markets.
In other words, the demos will be generated by a complex algorithm cooked up by Nielsen’s statisticians and programmers. Nielsen is saying, in effect, trust me on the demos. How can you go wrong trusting Nielsen?
Broadcasters will need to know more about the demo methodology before signing bigger checks to Nielsen.
Broadcasters should also be concerned about what the new electronic ratings may show. They’ve watched their diary ratings slowly erode over the past 40 years with the growth of cable and, more recently, with the rise of the Internet and mobile video devices.
The more accurate ratings from the code readers may show that broadcast viewership is actually worse than the diaries indicated.
The devil you know may be better than the one you don’t, especially if the former is cheaper.
I’m a bit skeptical that Nielsen can pull this off. Prior efforts to replace or enhance the diaries have petered out. In 2006, Nielsen unveiled its A2/M2 plan to eliminate the diaries, at least in markets down to DMA 125. That never happened.
Then, in 2011, Nielsen officials said it was going forward with a plan to bolster the returns from the diaries with data from cable and satellite boxes. That didn’t materialized either.
Perhaps worried about overpromising once again, Nielsen would not provide a timetable for this latest effort to do away with diaries. That suggests that the initial 14 markets are a trial of sorts. Nielsen will see how it goes in markets ranging from Grand Rapids (DMA 40) to Santa Barbara (DMA 123) before committing to a national rollout.
Nielsen certainly has greater incentive to make it work. Standing in the wings is Rentrak with its rival all-electronic system based on satellite and cable set-top data. Today, it’s mostly seen as a supplement to Nielsen, but it could emerge as a true alternative with wider acceptance on the agency side.
In the best of all possible worlds, broadcasters will one day have a choice between Nielsen and Rentrak. Competition — that’s the way to keep prices down and make sure the services are accurate, reliable and responsive.
So, broadcasters should hope the new Nielsen code reader technology proves sound, the inevitable bugs are stomped out and the paper diaries live on only in a display case in some museum of broadcasting.