Nielsen inks with Replay

Companies to create DVR hardware that can trace viewing habits

Do people watch TV differently when they can easily time-shift programs and skip over ads, as the new digital video recorders allow?

In an attempt to find some answers, Nielsen Media Research has struck a deal with ReplayTV to develop technology that will track viewing through the new machines.

No money or payment is involved between the parties, according to Nielsen.

Digital video recorders automatically record everything a viewer is watching onto a digital hard drive in a VCR-sized set-top box so that the viewer can pause and rewind live TV programming without deciding in advance to record the program. They also allow for the easy storage of programs to be played back whenever it’s convenient for the user.

But that creates all kinds of problems for programmers and advertisers who base all viewership ratings and ad rates on the number of viewers who watch a given show at its scheduled time.

Viewers can delay

With Replay, a viewer may delay his viewing of “ER,” for example, by anywhere from five minutes to five months. He may even watch five weeks worth of episodes back-to-back on a Saturday, skipping the commercials in the process with a button that jumps ahead in 30-second increments.

Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus said that the issues created by the new machines have caused Nielsen to eliminate Nielsen People Meter homes with Replay machines from their sample audience. Replay has sold only a few thousand machines so far.

But the agreement in principle with Replay, and anticipated deals with Replay competitors TiVo and WebTV, will allow Nielsen to develop technology that will record exactly what show is being watched on a time-shifted basis, and perhaps which commercials are being skipped.

Initial testing will be done only in People Meter homes that use a Replay machine. There are currently 23,000- 25,000 homes in 48 markets with electronic People Meters that indicate when the TV is on, what channel it’s on and who is watching.

Nielsen measures

Once the technology is developed to track the viewing habits of people with these time-shifting machines and testing is done, Nielsen will work with programmers and advertisers to determine how to report it in context.

A digital video recorder is a natural data collection device for audience measurement. But many industry observers expected a deal of this kind to be struck first with TiVo, which has been more aggressive about exploiting the data-gathering aspects of the technology.

Part of the TiVo service tracks viewing patterns of the user in order to make suggestions about other shows the viewer may be interested in watching. Although TiVo claims the viewership data never leaves the hard drive of the set-top box in the user’s home, the technology has sparked much discussion about the invasion of privacy and the potential for TiVo to upload the data through the required telephone line connection and sell it to advertisers.

Data gathering quest

Loftus said Nielsen has had conversations with TiVo and is already working with Microsoft and its WebTV unit on data gathering from the Internet and TV.

The Replay system does not have technology built in to track viewing choices, meaning that Nielsen will have to work with Replay to develop a hardware or software solution.

This agreement “represents a major advance in the measurement of this new time-shifting, digital technology,” said Scott Brown, who is responsible for marketing and technology relationships at Nielsen.

Separately, Nielsen is also setting up a convergence panel of 200 homes to track how viewing habits are altered by people watching combination TV/PC devices.

Nielsen has 300-400 People Meter homes in each of the 48 markets it measures locally, and 5,000 People Meter homes in its national sample.

More than 1 million homes fill out Nielsen diaries each year detailing viewing habits.

In other news from Replay, the company has named Michael Teicher senior vice president of advertising sales. Teicher, who spent nearly 10 years at Turner Broadcasting Sales and was most recently senior VP of Global Client Solutions, will oversee ReplayTV’s newly opened advertising and sales offices in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.

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