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As potatoes decamp from the couch, industry struggles to monitor their behavior

The TV industry is taking a small step towards catching up with the consumption patterns of its audience, who are increasingly making use of digital technology to watch their favorite programs.

Nielsen and a coterie of TV networks – A+E, ABC, AOL, CBS, The CW, Discovery Communications, FOX, NBC and Univision – have agreed to take part in a  pilot for what Nielsen calls its digital program ratings that will tabulate overnight data for unique audience, stream counts and reach by age and gender for TV programming viewed online.

The test does not take into account people who watch TV via mobile devices such as smartphones or tablets – meaning that no matter how successful the idea is, it will not capture a viewer behavior that is on the rise and growing.

Nielsen already has a means for measuring online viewership, but its technology requires the TV program being viewed to have the exact same “load” of advertising as the program when it was broadcast on the traditional living-room TV. With that mandate built in, Nielsen can then determine how many people watched the commercials within three days’ of the show airing, the bedrock of the current means of determining “commercial ratings” that determine how sponsors pay TV nets.

Yet sitting through a TV ad break – complete with local ads, network promos and more – isn’t part of the culture of online viewing. When Hulu was first unveiled, short ad interruptions – consisting sometimes of just one or two ads from the same sponsors across the length of the show – were part of its  aesthetic. However sites such as Hulu or ABC.com have experimented (or been prodded by their backers) into adding more commercials.

The new Nielsen test seems to recognize that ads are served online in significantly different fashion than they are on TV. In many cases online, “ads are digitally inserted and they can be addressed to the end user based on some kind of knowledge of who they are,” said Eric Solomon, senior veep for global digital audience measurement at Nielsen, in an interview. The model is one “that, frankly, many or most of our clients are pursuing as a primary means of monetizing their digital content.”

Even so, online viewers may not see any fewer ads than they do when they watch TV. Solomon said the networks are “starting to package the same number of ads” online as they do on TV. They’re just serving them up differently.

Nielsen already publishes data that helps advertisers determine how their ads and ad campaigns are viewed online. The new digital ratings would help TV nets monitor the number of people consuming their programs, and the two sets of data could be used at some point in the future to devise ratings guarantees and, therefore, ad prices, Solomon said. “We believe this will allow our clients to go down that path,” he said.

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