Next week, Nielsen will formally announce to clients a timetable for a long-awaited development: In September 2014, the firm is aiming to be able to attribute linear TV viewed on smartphones and tablets to its National TV ratings.
The approach, the culmination of more than three years of work, will for the first time provide a single, consistent measure of live programming viewing across both TV and digital, according to the firm. That could solve a problem that has vexed TV nets and marketers: Today, there’s no satisfactory way to harmonize data about video content and advertising viewed on TV, online, mobile and other platforms.
“Networks are starving for a number they can publish that really represents their audience not just on TV but across all platforms,” said Eric Solomon, Nielsen’s senior VP of global audience measurement. “I think it will start changing the narrative that ‘people are not watching TV shows.’ It’s that they’re watching on different platforms.”
The new Nielsen capability means live television streamed through such apps as ABC’s WatchABC, as well as on iPad video apps from cable operators, can now be counted toward the total numbers on which programmers get paid by TV advertisers.
However, to be counted as part of Nielsen’s TV ratings, mobile apps must include special code that can track live TV (and send it back to Nielsen). That’s a step that will take time for Nielsen and its partners to implement, test and refine.
Viacom Media Networks chief research officer Colleen Fahey-Rush is taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“They have a lot to deliver,” she said, who describes Nielsen as “kind of like the bad boyfriend who keeps letting you down but you can’t break up with him, because he’s the only boy in the whole school.”
In tandem, Nielsen is working to deliver Digital Program Ratings, which measure consumption of TV content online delivered without the national commercials (replaced with digitally inserted online ads), in the first quarter of next year. The firm announced a pilot of Digital Program Ratings in April that includes participation from ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, A&E, CW, Discovery, Univision and AOL.
“What we’re trying to do is bring a lot of the TV model to the digital world,” said Solomon. “This will find Nielsen-coded content on any platform.”
The Digital Program Ratings data uses the same methodology as Nielsen’s Online Campaign Ratings service, which is based on about half of homes in its National People Meter panel (about 10,000 households that also have agreed to let the company monitor their online consumption). To glean age and gender data and cross-reference that with the viewing numbers, Nielsen cut a pact with Facebook, which has about 179 million monthly active users in the U.S.
The two Nielsen digital initiatives support both linear TV and digital ad models, according to Solomon. “A key learning for us was that no two clients are approaching this question of distribution in the same way — they need flexibility to choose the monetization model they use,” he said.
Do the Nielsen efforts go far enough? Industry observers are encouraged by the projects, calling them steps in the right direction, but said they’re not a panacea.
“The fact that (incorporating mobile viewing into TV ratings) is still a year off shows we’re not moving at the speed that marketers and consumers are,” said David Cohen, chief media officer for ad agency Universal McCann.
About the grumbling that Nielsen has taken far too long to progress in this area, Solomon said the company can’t unilaterally alter its national TV ratings given the billions of dollars in advertising sold based on the data. “Any change to that is thought through and analyzed to death, and that’s one of the reasons why this seems to take so long,” he said.
In the absence of action by Nielsen, several programmers have placed bets on other research initiatives. Perhaps the most ambitious is ESPN’s hybrid Project Blueprint, which the sports cabler began testing in February.
It is based on comScore’s services tracking 1 million PCs and 14,000 mobile devices, combined with data from 4.5 million cable set-tops. To that, Project Blueprint layers in data from Arbitron’s 70,000 Portable People Meter, to add radio exposure and a cross-reference of television. Finally, in the critical linchpin, the data uses a single-source “calibration panel” of 2,000 PPM users that provides a reality check across all media — TV, online, mobile and radio.
“Our message is, this thing works and it works extremely well,” said Artie Bulgrin, ESPN’s senior vice president of research and analytics. “The cross-platform data we see is very logical to us. It is a badly needed layer of quantitative data that the industry desperately needs to understand net reach across platforms over an extended period of time.”
ESPN wants to use Project Blueprint to conduct real business. At its 2014 upfront next spring, it plans to present a full year of usage data showing its cross-platform reach for programming including the NFL, NBA and college football and basketball seasons. Based on initial results this summer, ESPN digital properties provide a reach lift of 18% for adults — and 23% for men — over the reach of the TV networks alone.
“I think it could very well be ‘the’ answer, and if it isn’t it’s pretty close to it,” Bulgrin claimed.
Aside from ESPN, however, nobody else is using Project Blueprint today and the methodology still awaits industry vetting. Another potential hitch is that Nielsen is in the midst of acquiring Arbitron, pending regulatory review, and it’s possible Nielsen may decide to not continue to participate in Project Blueprint.