DVR, online viewing make tracking data difficult

As the TV biz braces for the fall season launch, there’s no quicker way to get a network exec fuming than to bring up the touchy subject of TV ratings.

TV aud measurement hasn’t caught up to the multiplatform world and the new ways in which people watch shows. TV titans know that this is costing them money, in terms of lost advertising revenue, and lost luster for the network programming business if ratings indicate that auds are consistently shrinking.

In the upcoming season, the major broadcast nets and Nielsen are in a race to harness new measurement technology to tackle the challenge of combining old-fashioned live TV viewing stats with viewing done via DVR playback and online.

Early next year Nielsen is set to launch its “Extended Screen” service, which aims to track online viewing of full-length episodes of TV skeins in order to allow nets to combine the viewing stats on various platforms and sell round numbers to advertisers.

But there’s a catch: The online airings would have to carry the exact same ad spots as the show program did in its traditional TV telecast in order to get that cumed number. At present, most online plays of full-length episodes carry far fewer commercials than a regular TV telecast.

Hulu, the big driver of online viewing of network TV fare, has been steadfast in maintaining a lighter volume of blurbs, although the company is understood to be facing some pressure from its partner congloms — NBC Universal, News Corp. and Disney — to up the load so that Hulu viewing can be better monetized by the nets that supply its programming.

The CW is first out of the gate, moving to a full commercial load on its online player this fall — but those ads won’t be simulcast with the broadcast run just yet. Other programmers are circling the idea as well — but much may depend on how CW’s plan is received by viewers, who are used to just a handful of ads while watching free streams of their favorite shows.

Cable programmers have also been experimenting with a variety of commercial loads as they make more programming available for online viewing under the “TV Everywhere” framework, which gives cable and sat-TV subscribers on-demand access to selected shows like Hulu.

Matt O’Grady, exec veep of media audience measurement at Nielsen, said the company is on track to meet its February rollout date, with roughly half of the desired 20,000 national household sample in place. A test will be conducted in the fall.

“There’s a lot of field work going on, and we’re continually recruiting homes and asking them for access to both online and television meters,” O’Grady said. “The R&D has gone well, and the big part of our focus now is communicating with clients about the nuances of the ratings.”

Alan Wurtzel, NBC Universal’s prexy of research and media development, said he’s encouraged by Nielsen’s move to start incorporating web ratings: “I give Nielsen credit for beginning to test (Extended Screen) now. There are a lot of limitations, but it’s a good first step to measuring viewership on the Web.”

But Wurtzel would like to help Nielsen take bigger steps.

Last year at this time, echoing many in the industry who believe Nielsen hasn’t responded quickly enough to technology advances, he helped form a group — the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement — designed to fund research into new forms of TV audience measurement.

Now under the guidance of managing director Jane Clark and comprised of 22 media companies, distributors, advertisers and agencies, CIMM is launching its first project. With an estimated cost of $1 million, the six-month project — based on the TouchPoints service developed in the U.K. — hopes to produce a database that will allow media planners, buyers and sellers to measure unduplicated reach across all media.

The group plans to release its findings to the public next year after a six-month window in which its members would access the results exclusively.

“As time goes on, and the use of viewing platforms increases, we need to have better measurement of television across these platforms,” Wurtzel said. “We’re doing some interesting things, and hopefully we can help to accelerate progress.”

For its part, Nielsen doesn’t have a problem with what CIMM is doing.

“We speak to them often,” said O’Grady, “and we welcome all viewpoints in the marketplace and any innovation in media measurement.”

Nielsen has had to make some dramatic changes in the past few years, having previously spent decades focusing just on overnight and live ratings. But those ratings staples are now just two of a multitude of ways to gauge a program’s popularity.

That list now includes “live plus same-day” ratings (which includes DVR playback until 3 a.m. the next morning), “live plus 7-day” (DVR playback for one week) as well as “C3″ ratings — a measure of commercials watched both live and during three days of DVR playback and the metric under which much of primetime advertising is bought.

Nielsen, the networks and advertisers quickly adjusted to the C3 metric, which became the industry standard upon its rollout in 2007.

“I don’t think there was anyone who wasn’t worried when it launched three years ago because it was a very different way of processing data and dealing with it,” Wurtzel said. “But it worked very well from the beginning.”

But at the networks these days, analyzing ratings has become a somewhat lengthy process. The C3 and live-plus-7 ratings are issued about two weeks after the end of the broadcast week. “What we sell, the C3, is the most important (rating), but at the same time those don’t come for a couple weeks,” said Kelly Kahl, senior exec veep of program planning and scheduling for CBS. That’s an eternity in the competitive world of network scheduling. So net execs still rely on the overnight numbers, live-plus same day and other measures, with the big caveat that they know the numbers could improve — sometimes by as much as 30% to 40% — in a week’s time.

A recent Horizon Media study of DVR viewing patterns over the last three years found that virtually every primetime skein is gaining aud through time-shifted viewing, and that the median age of almost every show declines when DVR numbers are factored in. The aud for NBC’s “The Office,” for example, averaged a gain of 36%, or 3.2 million viewers, each week in the live-plus-7 numbers last season, according to the study.

“You need some guidelines along the way, so that’s where the overnights, and everything else are helpful,” Kahl said. “The live plus same-day are the first concrete indicator of what’s going on, and that has some pretty solid demographics. If those look good, you’re probably sitting pretty well.”

Charles Kennedy, senior veep of research at ABC, said the early ratings are important, but even then you don’t have a true sense of performance — especially for new shows.

“There’s even more fall anxiety now until we see a couple iterations of live-plus-7,” he said. “We look to see how the DVR playback comes in, and you combine that with time periods, which are important, and you begin to see a pattern.”

He’ll be looking for patterns — more so than even the pure numbers — to emerge from the Extended Screen ratings.

“You can’t make blanket statements (about online viewing), so we’re more interested in learning what kinds of shows it is impacting most,” he said. “Once a pattern is in place, we can respond accordingly.”

The gap between live ratings and live-plus-7 continues to grow, as more viewers wait to watch programs on their own schedule via DVR — and that means, in many cases, that the networks must wait longer before deciding whether to dump a low-performing show. Even as the media makes snap judgments on a show’s success or failure based on overnight ratings, nets increasingly need to have patience in evaluating the perf of new shows.

Kennedy pointed to a series like ABC’s sci-fi drama “V,” whose return last spring following a lengthy hiatus didn’t result in especially strong live plus same-day numbers. But it’s coming back to ABC for a second season in late fall.

“The amount of extra viewing for ‘V’ on DVR and online was pretty impressive, and made us think there was something there,” he added.

Looking ahead in the ratings sphere, Nielsen’s O’Grady said incorporating mobile viewing via cellphones and wireless devices will be important, as it hopes to make it part of the network’s planned “three-screen” measure (the home TV, the computer and mobile device) in the near future. He also says Nielsen has its sights on generating more detailed info about viewership of commercials.

“We welcome looking at not just the average minute of commercial viewing, but who saw what commercial,” he said.

“We’re heading more in that direction, and how the industry coalesces around that is the next big step for us.”DVR giant TiVo, a leader in set-top box data measurement, is already doing things in this realm, announcing this week that it is offering new audience research and measurement capabilities integrated into an updated version of its anonymous StopWatch ratings service, beginning in September.

The features include Promo Effectiveness and Promo Conversion (helping to determine the percentage of viewers who view a promo, and then watch that program), True Target Analysis (measuring the activity of one specified group against the viewing behavior of another) and Incremental Reach (measuring time-shifted viewing of a particular ad campaign).

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