ABC-Nielsen pact underscores absence of key data

A new collaboration to measure iPad usage announced Wednesday by Disney-ABC Television Group and Nielsen reflects the growing industrywide urgency to understand the device’s impact on media consumption, which even in its early days is shaping up to be profound.

That such a pact was struck highlights the absence of a viable measurement option for tablets. Though Apple alone has sold nearly 60 million of the different versions of iPad released to date, Nielsen doesn’t currently measure viewing on the platform.

“It’s definitely a very high priority,” said Brian Fuhrer, senior VP of national and cross-platform audience measurement at Nielsen. “We’ve heard from clients that a big concern is they’re losing audience.”

ABC-Nielsen venture involves assembling a panel of 200 iPad users who can opt in to downloading a meter that tracks everything they do on the device. The pact between Disney’s TVarm and the pre-eminent audience measurement service isn’t intended for review outside Disney, which is looking beyond just video usage to get a more holistic sense of how the Apple tablet is used.

Nielsen has made other efforts to get a handle on measuring iPad viewing by striking a number of partnerships with media companies similar to its pact with ABC. The only partners Nielsen has gone public with are Time Warner Cable, Cablevision and two unspecified content companies.

It’s probably no coincidence that both of those cable operators were sued by Viacom last year for making an assortment of linear channels available for their subscribers to view on iPad. Viacom claimed its affiliate agreements with those companies did not allow them to appropriate the channels outside of TV sets. The company specifically cited the lack of measurement on tablets in their complaint.

Viacom later settled with Cablevision but is still at war with Time Warner Cable over the matter.

Nielsen won’t extend beyond its current partner-oriented approach to iPads to a broader implementation until the third quarter of the year at the earliest, according to Fuhrer, who also indicated Nielsen will reveal which companies are participating in the trials in the second quarter.

Programmers are antsy for iPad measurement for several reasons. First, the iPad is a key beachhead for viewing in the multichannel world’s ongoing efforts to extend video to digital platforms. If the legal and technical hurdles of the so-called TV Everywhere initiative weren’t daunting enough, the measurement shortcomings don’t make the efforts any more enticing.

Tracking iPad usage is also important because there’s a known correlation between those who bought the device and high-income households who advertisers want to reach most.

Knowing just how much video is being watched on iPads is also crucial given preliminary indications that if tablet use continues to grow at its current pace, it could very well cannibalize viewing on TVs.

Last month, research firm Chadwick Martin Bailey did a survey in which 63% of people who recently watched TV on a tablet said they used a tablet even when they had access to a TV with similar content available.

What little data is available on tablet video consumption is a testament to its potential. Last November, online video specialist Ooyala found that people watch videos nearly 30% longer on tablets than desktops. Nielsen also found that a majority of tablet owners are more than willing to pay for entertainment content, including 51% for movies.

But video on TV and tablet isn’t a clear-cut either-or proposition. The iPad is also emerging as a second-screen companion in the living room. Last October, Nielsen found that 42% of tablet owners use the device daily while watching TV for a range of behaviors that included checking for more info on ads or programs on the air.

Complicating Nielsen’s approach to tablets is that it is just one of several digital platforms where video is being consumed, including online, mobile and connected TVs. Given the same programming is often consumed on two or more of those platforms, another big priority for the company has been consolidating and simplifying the data derived from them.

Nielsen has been endeavoring to combine strictly TV and online for at least five years, most recently as part of its Extended Screen program. Last week, Nielsen and Madison Avenue giant GroupM jointly announced Cross-Platform Campaign Ratings to blend measurement of the mediums. Fuhrer indicated tablet viewing could eventually be added.

And there are still more layers of complexity for Nielsen to navigate here given the different types of viewing that occur between live, VOD and DVR, as well as the growing number of sources for TV programming as brands including Netflix and Hulu vie with traditional networks for eyeballs across devices.

Disney isn’t the only conglom interested in learning more about tablets. Last month, NBCUniversal announced a joint venture with Google and Comscore to study cross-platform media consumption at the upcoming Olympics including tablets, which didn’t exist during the 2010 Games.

Tablet measurement is also drawing interest beyond programmers and advertisers to mobile operators and device manufacturers with a host of concerns about tailoring technical specs to consumption habits.

While the iPad is dominating the discussion about the impact of tablets, there are a number of companies intent on eating away at Apple’s market share in the space, from Amazon’s Kindle Fire to the Samsung Galaxy Tab. But so far they aren’t drawing the research focus coming to iPad.

Apple’s rivals are clearly clued into the importance of creating a coherent ecosystem across platforms including the tablet for entertainment consumption. Earlier this month, Google consolidated Android Market with its various content offerings into Google Play, a one-stop shop for buying and consuming on myriad devices.

This isn’t the first pact between Nielsen and ABC on the iPad front. The companies began collaborating two years ago on an app that delivered content to the tablet synchronized to the network’s TV programming, marking one of the first efforts in the resurgence of interactive TV.

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