Measuring TV audience

The next couple of years are likely to be the most dynamic in the history of television measurement, says Paul Donato, chief research officer at Nielsen Media Research.

Donato, who will discuss those changes at the Broadcast Engineering/Broadcasting & Cable-produced News Technology Summit in Chicago, identifies four unfolding changes which are likely to impact local news ratings.

“Our most important initiative is probably the combined measurement of TV and the Internet,” Donato says. “That includes measurement of streaming but also measurement of viewing Web pages.”

Over the next year, Nielsen is rolling out measurement techniques designed to reveal the relationship between broadcast and Internet use.

“So many of the major station groups have come to us and talked about their Internet strategy and the interplay between whether their news programs can push somebody to a Web site, and whether a Web site can drive somebody to an actual video,” Donato says.

The extension of electronic measurement techniques down to market 125 is another significant change, he says. Rolled out over the next three to four years in markets 11 through 60, People Meters will have the same impact in these markets as they have had for some time in markets 1 through 10, namely the elimination of sweeps and a change in the size of the measured audience.

“It's year-round measurement, so there are no more sweeps,” Donato explains. “To the extent there's any kind of programming done for the sweeps periods, People Meters will likely impact that strategy.”

History also shows there are differences in the numbers that get produced when measuring a person's data through a People Meter versus a combination of meters and diaries, which is the technique currently used in markets 11 through 60.

“Typically, any programming that runs five days a week at the same time tends to do better in a diary than a pure electronic measured system,” Donato cautions.

For markets 61 to 125, Nielsen plans to mail households electronic meters to measure their viewing habits. All it asks is for people to place the devices near their TVs so they can pick up what it being watched.

“What that tends to do compared to an all-diary system is to actually drive the ratings up a little bit,” he explains.

The bottom line for news directors is simple.

“Technology changes result in measurement changes,” Donato says. “Sometimes you can expect them to have a positive impact on the numbers, and sometimes they'll have a negative impact on the numbers.”

Nielsen also will begin relying on new technology that looks for codes embedded in audio tracks rather than what frequency is tuned to in its quest to measure the out-of-home TV viewing market.

“By measuring television that way, you're in a position actually of measuring mobile media outside the home,” Donato says. “No longer does the meter actually have to be attached to a TV set. From a news programming point of view, it's a fact that much news is broadcast during traditionally what is the commute time.”

With this new approach, Nielsen has a way to measure viewers who are turning to mobile devices during their commutes, a previously unmeasured, but important, segment of the total audience.

Finally, there will be a growing use of data from STBs. By providing data about what's being watched on a second-by-second basis, STBs give news directors the ability to do micro evaluations of their newscasts. While acknowledging limitations — such as not knowing whether the box is attached to a TV that's actually on — Donato says set-top box data is precise.

“Taken together, these are tremendous technology changes to the whole ratings system,” he says. “They are likely to have a significant impact on news audiences and, therefore, the management and production of news.”