The complications of measuring TV viewing, Nielsen vs. Amazon in Thursday night football ratings edition

The company now airing Thursday Night Football and the company known for measuring TV audiences do not agree on how many people are watching football:

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By the Nielsen company’s count, 7.8 million people watched Amazon Prime’s coverage of last Thursday’s NFL game between New Orleans and Arizona. But Amazon says no, there were actually 8.9 million people watching…

Neither company is saying the other is wrong, but neither is backing down, either. The result is confusion, most notably for advertisers.

Nielsen, as it has for years, follows the viewing habits in a panel of homes across the country and, from that limited sample, derives an estimate of how many people watch a particular program. That number is currency in the media industry, meaning it is used to determine advertising rates.

Amazon, in the first year of an 11-year contract to stream Thursday night games, says it has an actual count of every one of its subscribers who streams it — not an estimate. The games are also televised in the local markets of the participating teams, about 9% of its total viewership each week, and Amazon uses Nielsen’s estimate for that portion of the total…

But with Netflix about to introduce advertising, that can all change very rapidly. And if other companies develop technology that can measure viewing more precisely, the precedent has now been set for publicly disputing Nielsen’s numbers.

There could be multiple methodological issues at play here. One involves who has a more accurate count. If Amazon can directly count all viewers, that could be the more accurate number. However, not all television providers have that ability. A second concern is how different providers might count viewership. Does Amazon reveal everything about its methods? Nielsen is an independent organization that theoretically has less self-interest in its work.

All of this has implications for advertisers, as noted above, but it also gets at understandings of how many people today view or consume particular cultural products. Much has been said about the fragmentation of culture industries with people having the ability to find all sorts of works. Accurate numbers help us make sense of the media landscape and uncover patterns. Would competing numbers or methods lead to very different narratives about our collective consumption and experiences?

The difficulty of measuring TV watching (COVID-19 and otherwise)

Nielsen and TV networks are sparring over Nielsen data that suggests fewer people are watching television during COVID-19:

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Through the trade group Video Advertising Bureau, the networks are perplexed by Nielsen statistics that show the percentage of Americans who watched their televisions at least some time during the week declined from 92% in 2019 to 87% so far this year.

Besides being counter-intuitive in the pandemic era, the VAB says that finding runs counter to other evidence, including viewing measurements from set-top cable boxes, the increased amount of streaming options that have become available and a jump in sales for television sets…

The number of families, particularly large families, participating in Nielsen measurements has dropped over the past year in percentages similar to the decrease in viewership, Cunningham said. Nielsen acknowledges that its sample size is smaller — the company is not sending personnel into homes because of COVID-19 — but said statistics are being weighted to account for the change…

More people are spending time on tablets and smartphones, which aren’t measured by Nielsen. The podcast market is soaring. Sports on television was interrupted. Due to production shutdowns, television networks were airing far more reruns, Nielsen said.

This sounds like a coming together of long-term trends and short-term realities. The long-term trends include people engaging with media across a wider range of devices, it takes work to measure all of their viewing and finding people to participate in any data collection, and there are a lot of entertainment choices competing with television. In the short-term, COVID-19 pushed people home but it disrupted their typical patterns.

Will this affect the long-running place television has in the everyday lives of Americans? Even as of 2018, Nielsen reported that the average American watched more than 4 hours of television a day. TV might be conveyed through different formats – streaming, handheld devices, etc. – but it is still a powerful force and a significant use of time.

At the same time, how TV is consumed and how this affects what television means could be quite different moving forward. Watching streaming television on a smartphone while commuting is a very different experience than sitting on the couch after dinner for an hour or two and watching a big-screen TV. Teasing out these differences takes some work but a new and/or younger generation of TV viewers might have quite a disparate relationship with television.

One TV show had a higher rating – so change the ratings

Nielsen will change how they measure TV viewing as ratings continue to drop:

Despite the May axing of 19 first-year series and such surprise dumpings as ABC’s Castle and Nashville, cancellations are proving rarer, even as linear ratings shrink. That’s because, of the 60 returning scripted series to air on the five main broadcast networks this season, only one finished with improved ratings from the previous year. And that show premiered in the ’90s. Law & Order: SVU‘s modest gain, up an incremental 4 percent during its 17th cycle, is a case study in how the industry standard week of DVR and on-demand views doesn’t provide the most complete narrative any longer — or at least not one that the networks are eager to tell.

“We have found that audiences continue to grow beyond seven days in every instance, some by 58 percent among adults 18-to-49,” says Nielsen audience insights senior vp Glenn Enoch. “Growth after seven days is consistent, but the rate of growth varies by genre. Some programs need to be viewed in the week they air, while consumers use on-demand libraries to view others over time, like animated comedies and episodic dramas.”

To that end, on Aug. 29, Nielsen will up the turnaround on live-plus-7-day reporting (no more 15-day wait time), offering daily rolling on time-shifting, and it will start extending the tail past the long-established extra week of views. The measurement giant announced in March that the window for regularly reported on-demand and DVR data now will extend to 35 days after the original airdate.

The extra draw between weeks two and five is not minor for many scripted series. Grey’s Anatomy, again ABC’s highest-rated drama in its 12th season, saw its live-plus-7 average in the key demographic drop 3 percent from the previous season. But the 35-day trail of VOD (with online streams) adds another 1.5 rating points among 18-to-49, making for a 6 percent improvement from the show’s 11th season. (Of note: 1.5 is the complete live-plus-7-day rating for Thursday neighbor and surprise renewal The Catch.)

Certainly viewing habits have changed in recent years as viewing options proliferate. But, it is hard also not to see this as an attempt to chase numbers to provide advertisers (which leads to more money). If only one show showed an improvement from the past season (and a Law & Order in its 17th season), change the system of measurement. Perhaps this is the true acknowledgment that television will never be the same: the best solution to declining ratings is not to put together better content or to put together a new consolidated model but rather to chase viewers to all ends of the earth.

Nielsen changes the definition of watching TV to include streaming

When people starting watching TV in new ways, companies have to adjust and collect better data:

The decisions made by the [What Nielsen Measures] committee are not binding but a source at one of the big four networks was ecstatic at the prospect of expanded measurement tools. The networks for years have complained that total viewing of their shows isn’t being captured by traditional ratings measurements. This is a move to correct that.

By September 2013, when the next TV season begins, Nielsen expects to have in place new hardware and software tools in the nearly 23,000 TV homes it samples. Those measurement systems will capture viewership not just from the 75 percent of homes that rely on cable, satellite and over the air broadcasts but also viewing via devices that deliver video from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, from so-called over-the-top services and from TV enabled game systems like the X-Box and PlayStation.

While some use of iPads and other tablets that receive broadband in the home will be included in the first phase of measurement improvements, a second phase is envisioned to include such devices in a more comprehensive fashion. The second phase is envisioned to roll out on a slower timetable, according to sources, will the overall goal to attempt to capture video viewing of any kind from any source.

Nielsen is said to have an internal goal of being able to measure video viewing on an iPad by the end of this year, a process in which the company will work closely with its clients.

This is a good example of how operationalization and measurement are not just for scientists. Here, possibly millions of dollars are at stake in advertising. It would be interesting to hear the advertisers’ side of the story; higher numbers could mean they pay more but it would also mean that they can reach bigger audiences.

So can we assume that better measurement means we will find that Americans watch more TV than we currently think?

Nielsen and Twitter combine to measure Twittering about television

With the rise of Twitter messages about television shows and events, Nielsen and Twitter just announced a new project to measure the connection:

“The Nielsen Twitter TV Rating is a significant step forward for the industry, particularly as programmers develop increasingly captivating live TV and new second-screen experiences, and advertisers create integrated ad campaigns that combine paid and earned media,” said Steve Hasker, President, Global Media Products and Advertiser Solutions at Nielsen. “As a media measurement leader we recognize that Twitter is the preeminent source of real-time television engagement data.”…

The Nielsen Twitter TV Rating will enhance the social TV analytics and metrics available today from SocialGuide by adding the first-ever measurement of the total audience for social TV activity – both those participating in the conversation and those who were exposed to the activity –providing the precise size of the audience and effect of social TV to TV programming.

SocialGuide, recently acquired by Nielsen and NM Incite, currently captures Twitter TV activity for all U.S. programming across 234 TV channels in English and Spanish, and more than 36,000 programs.  Through a sophisticated classification process, SocialGuide matches Tweets to TV programs to offer key social TV metrics including the number of unique Tweets associated with a given program and rankings for the most social TV programs.

This may be interesting in itself but the key may just be translating this into information that TV networks can sell to advertisers:

Brad Adgate, an analyst at Horizon Media, said advertisers will view the Twitter ratings as a useful layer of information about a show’s popularity, but it is “not going to be close to the currency” of existing ratings metrics.

“It lets producers and creative directors know if the storyline is working, like a huge focus group,” Adgate said. “But I don’t think you can translate comments to ratings for a show. Right now I think the bark right now is bigger than its bite.”…

Mark Burnett, executive producer of NBC’s hit “The Voice,” argued that advertisers should value programs that can attract a high level of social media engagement from viewers. Deeply embedded social media elements, such as live Twitter polls, were critical in driving “The Voice” to the top of the Tuesday night ratings among viewers between 18 to 49, Burnett said.

“If you’re an advertiser, wouldn’t you want to know whether people are watching this show passively or if they’re actively engaged in the viewing experience?” Burnett said. “Five years from now this will make traditional television ratings seem archaic.”

In other words, if this metric works well, television networks will be able to charge advertisers more based on increased levels of Twitter engagement or find some way to provide more targeted advertising to Twitter users. What will Twitter engaged TV watchers get out of it? I’m not sure. Will any of this measurement and action based on the data enhance the interactive element of TV watching? Theoretically, if TV networks could get more money for advertising based on social media engagement, they might have more money to put into developing quality programming. But, there are few guarantees there.

I’ll be very interested to see in coming years if Twitter and Facebook continue to remain relatively ad-free or if the need to monetize these experiences to make money takes precedence.

Highlights from the Nielsen Social Media Report 2012

Nielsen just released the Social Media Report 2012 (more data here). Here are a few things to note:

Facebook remains the most-visited social network in the U.S. via PC (152.2 million visitors), mobile apps (78.4 million users) and mobile web (74.3 million visitors), and is multiple times the size of the next largest social site across each platform.  The site is also the top U.S. web brand in terms of time spent, as some 17 percent of time spent online via personal computer is on Facebook.

-More than 70% of Pinterest’s users are female.

-The top three reasons by far for why social networks users become connected/friends: know person in real life, interested in keeping up, mutual friends. This is more evidence that social networks are mainly about maintaining existing connections rather than creating new connections.

-Watching TV is increasingly linked to tablet, smartphone, and Twitter usage. Multitasking is alive and well and perhaps TV can be interactive after all.

There is also some fascinating data at the end about social media usage around the world.

Nielsen reports a drop in American household TV ownership in America

A new report from Nielsen suggests fewer American households have televisions:

The Nielsen Company, which takes TV set ownership into account when it produces ratings, will tell television networks and advertisers on Tuesday that 96.7 percent of American households now own sets, down from 98.9 percent previously.

There are two reasons for the decline, according to Nielsen. One is poverty: some low-income households no longer own TV sets, most likely because they cannot afford new digital sets and antennas.

The other is technological wizardry: young people who have grown up with laptops in their hands instead of remote controls are opting not to buy TV sets when they graduate from college or enter the work force, at least not at first. Instead, they are subsisting on a diet of television shows and movies from the Internet.

Nielsen suggests that affordability is really behind this drop in TV set ownership. But of consumer goods that are truly American, isn’t having a television at the top of the list? More than owning a car or a home (granted, these are more expensive) or a radio or a microwave (a lower ownership rate than TVs according to this), the television is a critical part of average American life. And with all of the purchases in recent years of nicer TV sets (LCD, plasma, 3D, LED, digital tuners), there are plenty of older TVs laying out or available for a low price at garage sales, consignment shops, and on Craigslist.

It makes sense that Nielsen is very interested in these figures. Nielsen’s methodology may not seem important to some people but these ratings are incredibly important for the TV industry. These ratings help set advertising rates which drive the industry and dictate which shows survive on the air and which do not. If ratings go up (whether that is because the show is more popular or because Nielsen can show that more people watch it), then networks can ask for more money.

If household TV ownership rates keep dropping, how might this affect the TV industry and TV networks?

Ongoing issue of measuring online audiences

If you were examining’s online audience figures from the last few months, you would find some fluctuation: 43.5 million viewers in May and then 24 million viewers in June. What happened? Did something radically change with the website? Are people abandoning the practice of watching television online?

No, the main change is that ComScore changed its methodology for measuring who used the website. According to the Los Angeles Times:

The three dominant measurement firms — ComScore, Nielsen and Quantcast — have been working since 2007 with an independent media auditing group to make improvements so the Web data they report don’t have a fun-house quality, in which the same site’s traffic can look emaciated or bulging, depending on the viewer’s angle.

These firms have used different measurements over time including panels of users (like Nielsen uses for television and radio) and embedded tags in videos and websites to track viewership. These numbers matter more than ever for advertisers as they will spend around $25 billion in online advertising in the United States in 2010.

As in many cases, knowing the means of measurement matters tremendously for interpreting statistics.