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Nielsen Says It Screwed Up -- But Its Fix Won't Help TV's Real Ratings Problems

Some TV ratings have been wrong since March. But TV's real problem is much bigger than that.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Good news for the TV guys: Nielsen says its recent ratings, which have shown a worrisome slide for programmers, are wrong, and it’s going to fix them.

Bad news for the TV guys: Nielsen says its fix won’t fix that slide. When it’s done repairing its mistake, Nielsen says its numbers will still show eyeballs abandoning traditional TV broadcasts.

Programmers always complain that Nielsen isn’t counting their audience correctly, and for once Nielsen says they’re right: It says a “technical error” means it was screwing up its numbers for the broadcast networks since March.

But Nielsen says the mistake only means that some networks have been getting credit for other networks’ audiences — on a press call today, New York Times reporter Bill Carter was very convinced that Disney’s ABC had been a big beneficiary — and that its total audience numbers will remain unchanged.

So if you work at a network that gets a bump from Nielsen’s new calculations, you get to celebrate for a minute. But if you work in TV, period, you’re still not feeling good, because overall ratings — for both broadcast and cable TV — started slumping dramatically this summer, and they continue to look lousy.

Here’s an updated look, via analyst Michael Nathanson — this chart tracks “People Using TVs,” and it’s pretty self-explanatory:

Well, not quite self-explanatory. Nathanson figures that some of this decline comes from a change in the way Nielsen now measures this statistic: It has begun including homes that have broadband connections but aren’t getting pay TV, and that number is increasing, which helps shrink traditional “TV” usage. Nathanson figures that accounts for about two percent of the drop.

What about the rest? Nathanson figures that number simply reflects people who aren’t watching TV anymore.

If you’re a TV guy who wants a happier explanation, Nielsen boss Steve Hasker is happy to supply one: On a conference call today, he argued that people are watching lots of traditional TV shows, but not in ways Nielsen is able to fully count yet — like some video on demand or DVR viewing, or on phones, tablets, etc.

So if Nielsen could count all of that viewing, would the ratings drop go away? Yes, Hasker said today.

But that’s awfully hard to imagine. I’m sure that lots of TV programs are being watched on alternative platforms. But if you’re the kind of person who has figured out that you can watch “The Good Wife” on your DVR four days after it airs, or on iTunes the next day, or whatever — aren’t you also the kind of person who is now spending at least some of your TV time on things that aren’t TV?

It would be convenient — for the TV guys, and for Nielsen — if Nielsen’s argument pans out. My hunch is that reality is a lot messier.

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