Nielsen, best known for delivering TV ratings, is getting ready for a future when it gauges a lot more than what people are watching on TV.
The media-measurement giant plans to launch a new system that examines how many impressions a show or commercial makes across a broader panoply of video windows that might include the TV screen, but also the one embedded in a smartphone or computer. The process, which is expected to start in the fourth quarter of 2022 and be completed by the fall of the 2024 TV season, is likely to recalibrate decades of efforts to understand who watches programming and how they do it.
“Our customers want to understand how much audience came from different windows — from YouTube, from Amazon,” says Scott N. Brown, general manager for audience measurement at Nielsen, in an interview. “It really kind of changes the whole concept of what TV ratings are.”
Nielsen has long provided data on who watches TV programming by extrapolating activity from a sample of TV viewers across the nation. The company provides daily ratings that explain what percentage of U.S. households with televisions are tuned in to a particular program. Nielsen also offers estimates on how many people watched a show overall, as well as the number of people of a particular gender or age range. These estimates represent the bedrock element of how TV networks, stations and program syndicators do more than $70 billion worth of business with Madison Avenue each year.
Under the new system, dubbed “Nielsen One,” advertisers and media outlets will be able to use a single third-party measure that provides a look at how many people are watching a piece of content across linear and digital venues. Rather than examine what percentage of homes have tuned in, advertisers and networks might also focus on the total number of unduplicated video impressions a program or commercial makes over the course of a pre-determined window of time.
The industry has clamored for such technology for years. There has not been a major reworking of TV measurement since 2007, when advertisers and TV networks agreed to use a representation of the viewership of a commercial break to determine their deals. At the time, the industry was grappling with the effects of digital video recorders, which allowed viewers to skip past dozens of glitzy commercials.
Since that time, however, consumers have found even more ways to get around watching advertising – including relying on streaming services like Peacock, Hulu and Disney Plus, many of which run fewer commercials, even none. As consumers migrated to a dizzying array of video sites that can include a network’s own mobile apps, a binge-watch on Netflix or a catch-up of clips via YouTube, executives cursed their inability to tally up all the “eyeballs” their programs received.
In the interim, there has been a mad scramble to provide alternate measuring methodologies. Several media companies have joined organizations like Open A.P., which help define specific audience targets across several different outlets. NBCUniversal has promoted its ability to sell ad inventory across both linear and digital assets.
But many advertisers have grown leery of letting the media company setting the prices for advertising also determine how the audience behaved.
“We look forward to holding all media to the same standards of performance accountability and transparency as a result of Nielsen’s new product,” said Daryl Lee, Global CEO, IPG Mediabrands, the large media buying operation of Interpublic Group of Cos., in a statement.
Nielsen’s efforts to change methodology can sometimes be delayed or thwarted by other parts of the industry. TV networks may have to invest in new technology and systems to accommodate Nielsen’s changes, and there’s no guarantee that every company will decide to take part immediately. When the 2007 “commercial ratings” were devised, the former Viacom’s MTV Networks unit delayed implementation of it for some time.
In recent months, Nielsen has moved to build a new measurement system by expanding its efforts to incorporate connected TVs and digital video. Starting in the fourth quarter of 2022, the company expects to be able to deliver metrics for specific commercials and pieces of content, no matter the way in which they are delivered to a consumer. That technology, the company says, will become the foundation of its new measurement system, which it expects to succeed its current efforts no later than the start of the TV season in the fall of 2024.
“We expect the industry will need time to move away from the current way of doing things, “says Brown, noting that linear TV ratings and digital exposure are often collated separately.
Advertisers have already started crafting deals that are based on criteria other than how many men and women between the ages of 18 and 49 see a particular snippet of video. With audiences split across dozens of new viewing behaviors, many advertisers believe they can use consumer data to set up important targets and have started to pay a premium to media outlets that can deliver a higher percentage of a particular type of customer, such as first-time mothers, people in the market for a new car, or people likely to go to a new movie.
“It stands to reason that the world is getting more targeted and that is coming to television as well,” says Nielsen’s Brown.