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Nielsen’s new ratings yardstick

The job for advertisers who want to know how many people are watching a certain program at a given time is getting a lot harder.
/ Source: BusinessWeek Online

The job for advertisers who want to know how many people are watching a certain program at a given time is getting a lot harder. Would-be product buyers aren't just tuning into television anymore. They're getting programming on a wider range of outlets, from the Internet to handheld players to even a cell phone.

Nielsen Media Research, which has long measured TV audiences, is doing some tinkering to present a clearer picture of how many people are viewing programs—and potentially ads—over nontraditional means. Nielsen's Anytime Anywhere Media Measurement (thankfully, A2/M2 for short) will track not only the number of viewers tuning in with mobile phones, computers, and other devices, but also viewers outside of the home, including at bars and hotel rooms.

If completed as planned, Nielsen's new initiative should make ratings more accurate. Now, Nielsen tracks television viewership in homes using a combination of electronic meters attached to television sets and written journals in 12,000 households (meters in more urban areas, journals in more rural ones).

Under the plan unveiled in mid-June, the size of the in-home sample group will grow to about 18,000 to 20,000 nationwide by 2011, and Nielsen will try to outfit as many members of that group with devices that will let it track what they watch no matter where they go or what they use.

Networks say they welcome the new ratings method. "Advertisers want to understand that the way they spend is effective as it possibly can be … and we want to provide them with as much education" as possible, says Alan Wurtzel, president of research at NBC Universal.

Adds Mike Mellon, senior vice-president of research for the ABC Television Network: "It's long in coming, it's very exciting."

But making it work will require some sophisticated technology. To find out what people are watching outside of their homes, Nielsen will have its survey participants wear small, cell phone-like devices, says Paul Donato, Nielsen's chief research officer. The device will record a short sound byte of its surroundings every 30 seconds. It will then send this data back to Nielsen.

A computer program will then analyze the acoustic waves, and will be able to match it to the signature waveform of each show, according to Donato. That will give Nielsen the ability to track who's watching what regardless of the TV, and it will even provide the ability to track exposure to specific ads. Portable devices will be outfitted with a similar device that listens in and figures out what's playing. Nielsen expects to be ready to start the program by the end of 2008.

Advertisers and networks are in agreement about what they think is most important about the initiative: It will give them both a better understanding of who's watching online and on the go. It's likely that increased knowledge about what demographics are viewing new media ads will increase their value per viewer, bolstering those businesses.

One of the chief benefits, however, will be for the networks: They won't have to worry as much about the flight of viewers away from the TV, says Michael Goodman, a senior analyst at Yankee Group. If they can persuade advertisers to buy across all platforms, "It doesn't matter if they migrate or not," since you can track the impressions everywhere.

What's less clear is how much it will affect advertising rates outside of TV, says Goodman. It's almost certain that the media buyers and the TV networks will have different opinions on how to interpret how much a viewer is worth in different environments, like outside-of-the-home viewers in bars. "There's that question of [viewer] engagement and whether proximity equals exposure or engagement" says Jason Maltby, president and co-executive director of national television for WPP Group's media planning and buying organization MindShare.

Nielsen is also revising its measuring methods to reflect how many people record shows with the intention of watching them later — sans ads. Maltby says he expects negotiations to be similar to those currently taking place between ad buyers and programmers over whether an advertiser should pay for viewers who watch shows recorded on a personal digital recorder like TiVo.

It may be the same programming, but is an ad viewed in a crowded, noisy bar — or on a tiny screen on a handheld device — as effective as one blaring across the living room? Nielsen's taking the first steps toward finding out.