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Nielsen's Plan to Count TV Viewers Across Screens Faces Obstacles

Nielsen will begin counting mobile TV viewing as part of the regular broadcast ratings -- with strings attached.

Nik Merkulov/Shutterstock

When U.S. broadcast network executives trot out their fall programming lineups to advertisers this week in New York City, they’re hoping to celebrate one more milestone after the star-studded television upfront presentations are over.

Perhaps more so than at any other time in media history, they believe they will actually know with some degree of certainty how much its audience is consuming. Starting with this fall’s new programming season, Nielsen, the U.S. television industry’s dominant measurement firm, will begin reporting TV ratings that will finally include viewership on just about everything, including mobile devices.

Don’t break out the champagne just yet.

A range of issues, from the lack of commercial rights across digital platforms to the need for the networks and pay-TV distributors to implement Nielsen’s new technology, could mute the early benefits, underscoring just how difficult it has been for the media business to keep up with the rapidly changing ways we consume video today.

“You have a bunch of marketers who are testing the waters in this space, specifically with regard to mobile media, and they’re looking for more stable ground to walk on,” said Donnie Williams, chief digital officer for Horizon Media, an ad agency whose clients include Geico, Capital One and Honda. “There are very few marketers today who don’t have a tremendous amount to gain by having more visibility into who can be reached, and who’s being reached, via mobile efforts.”

Billions of ad dollars ride on getting the numbers right, especially as audiences spend more time in front of smartphones and ad spending on traditional TV appears to have peaked. Last year, advertisers spent $78 billion on TV.

But even deciding what can be counted is a problem.

TV viewership on mobile devices will only be credited toward overall television ratings if the digital version of an episode carries the exact same ads in the exact same time slots. However, this may not always be possible for a variety of reasons.

Actors, eager to control where their images are seen, don’t always agree to allow these promotions to appear online or on mobile devices. In other cases, commercial music rights haven’t been cleared for digital distribution.

Networks must remove TV commercials that lack proper clearances before an episode can be made available in a mobile app. This blocks the mobile version of the show from being counted as part of its overall TV ratings, as it no longer mirrors the original telecast.

Such mobile consumption will be tallied separately, under Nielsen’s digital ratings — which include digital program ratings that track how many people watched an individual program, and online campaign ratings for commercials.

“We definitely expected that there would be challenges,” said Monica Bannan, Nielsen’s vice president of mobile media. “What we’re offering is a new type of way to monetize. … These are things the industry will work out.”

Technology hurdles also have challenged Nielsen’s and the TV industry’s efforts to accurately reflect mobile video consumption as part of the aggregate whole.

Nielsen couldn’t use the same audio watermarking technology it uses to identify the TV shows people watch in their living rooms. Its household meters track audience tune-in by listening for this unique serial number, which is tucked away in the audio stream, though inaudible to humans. Some mobile operating systems ban such third-party eavesdropping, and keeping a constant electronic ear tuned for the next TV show would cause serious battery drain.

To solve the problem, TV programmers will need to adopt a different labeling system: Encrypted ID3 tags, which are embedded in the video stream of the mobile versions of the video, to identify each episode of every TV show. Companion software, incorporated into the smartphone and tablet apps, reads the information and counts each view for Nielsen.

Early Days

NBCUniversal* was the first to experiment with Nielsen’s new mobile measurement technology during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. It was considered proof of concept for the technology and its ability to measure audiences watching on TV, online and on mobile devices.

“Our Olympic experience overall, across all platforms — whether mobile or TV or streaming — was all exceptionally positive,” said Linda Yaccarino, NBCUniversal’s president of advertising sales, of the network’s ability to track various forms of viewing. The network said its website and the NBC Sports Live Extra app delivered 24.6 million video views, 160 percent more than during the Vancouver Winter Games four years earlier.

But, Yaccarino added, “The real focus for us is not just about the Olympics … it’s about total audience measurement. And we don’t think we [in the television industry] are there yet. We continue to suffer due to the lags in measurement.”

Numerous network executives express frustration with the limitations of measurement, which they say has failed to keep pace with changing viewer behavior. Take, for example, delayed viewing of TV shows stored on digital video recorders. When a person watches an episode within three days of its initial airing, it’s counted as part of a show’s TV rating. Beyond that, audiences can go unrecognized unless the network and media buyer agree to count the time-shifted views. And the nettlesome delays in reporting these seven-day viewing numbers are an industry-wide issue, common to all measurement firms.

As much as 10 percent to 15 percent of viewing goes unaccounted for, Yaccarino estimated.

Buyers and sellers of TV commercial time have had to cobble together information from various sources to estimate the size of the TV-watching audience on new screens — be it video snacking on smartphones, or full-episode viewing via tablet or through a computer browser. Sometimes the information is contradictory; often times it is incomplete — counting the number of views, but not the crucial demographic details that let marketers know whether an ad has reached its intended target.

This year marks the first time that buyers and sellers of advertising will have a comprehensive way of measuring TV viewing, irrespective of the screen. The measurement also will contain demographic information, gleaned in part through Nielsen’s partnership with Facebook — which will provide such data in a way that protects users’ privacy.

Advertisers welcome Nielsen’s efforts to provide uniform measurement of TV viewing.

“Obviously, we’re in favor of getting this stuff measured — particularly tablets, because I think that’s been lagging,” said Brian Hughes, who leads audience analysis for Magna Global, a division of IPG Mediabrands.

Hughes said marketers are eager for more concrete data, particularly on video-friendly tablets, to help them determine how best to allocate their spending on video. After all, Nielsen’s own numbers show some 113 million tablets, 166 million smartphones and 243 million Internet-connected computers currently vying for attention with the TV screen.

“These are potential customers as well — the profile for light TV viewers is actually pretty compelling,” Hughes said. “So we want to make sure we’re doing the best to reach our customers wherever they are.”

Horizon Media’s Williams said his agency has seen a 100 percent year-over-year growth in its mobile media practice (off an admittedly small base). Marketers are eager to capitalize on the shifting consumer behavior, which has been difficult to quantify in a way that’s similar to traditional media.

“The growing sense is, a lot of audience behavior is occurring in an area that isn’t trackable,” Williams said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how the upfront unfolds. What I anticipate is … folks don’t know what they have until they start to measure audience.”

Update 10:45 a.m. PT This post has been updated to reflect that delays in reporting seven-day TV viewing are common to the industry, and that Nielsen uses its own panels to help calibrate demographic data gathered from Facebook.

*NBCUniversal is an investor in Revere Digital, which owns Re/code.

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