On the Continued Revamping of Local TV Ratings

It’s been a bit of a slow news month thus far.  Fortunately, there has been some interesting news from Nielsen, who has provided some details about their plans to revamp their local television audience measurement system (local people meter, we hardly knew ya). 

This system is, right now, a complex and evolving patchwork of a number of different measurement technologies, including paper diaries, people meters, and audimeters.  Now, Nielsen is working to integrate cable set top box data into its existing local television audience measurement service (note: Nielsen is working exclusively with cable companies at this point, but when talking about “cable” boxes in this context, we’re also ultimately talking about the boxes provided by telcos and DBS providers).   And if there’s one lesson to be taken away from what Nielsen is describing, it is that measuring media audiences — whatever the platform — increasingly requires embracing and integrating multiple methodological approaches.

According to this report, the new local TV ratings will be derived from cable set top boxes, “but to account for a slew of other variables, [Nielsen] has created a model to use trends and behaviors from the national panel.”  This is indicative of the fact that there remain a number of hurdles to relying entirely on cable set top box data, ranging from the challenges of gathering demographic data, to dealing with situations when the cable box is on, but nobody is watching TV, to the fact there remain a number of TVs in use that aren’t attached to set top boxes.  On this latter point, it is important to remember that not only do there remain a significant number of pure “over the air” TV households, but also that many “cable” homes that have a primary set that is attached to a set top box also often have additional sets that are not.  And so, national-level viewing data will be used to fill in the blanks, to some extent, at the local level.

Other data sources will be incorporated into the local ratings reports as well.  It’s not entirely clear what these other sources are, but according to this report, “In addition to STB data and inferences from the national sample, Nielsen will also meld in other elements, including some that it currently uses, as part of the new local streams.”

Again, the main point here is that, whether we’re talking about online audience measurement (where the trend now is toward integrating panel data and server log analysis data) or television audience measurement, the key to navigating an increasingly complicated media environment from a measurement standpoints clearly seems to be to try to integrate, and take advantage of, the diverse strengths that different measurement approaches bring to the table.

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