Latest Developments on the Set-Top Box Front

As much as I argue in Audience Evolution that we are moving toward a post-exposure audience marketplace, in which criteria such as engagement, recall, etc. are going to increasingly serve as supplementary (and in some cases, alternative) currencies to traditional exposure, it is also the case that efforts are ongoing to preserve the primacy of exposure.  Case in point — the use of digital set top boxes as an alternative to people meters.  Talk of set top boxes replacing people meters has been ongoing for years; but the past few weeks have seen some significant developments that suggest that perhaps the tipping point is close at hand.

Consider, for instance, that last month, set top box data from audience measurement firm Rentrak were used by Viacom in an effort to resolve an ongoing dispute with Nielsen over a sudden drop in ratings for its Nickelodeon children’s network.  The Media Rating Council, which is investigating the dispute, is comparing Nickelodeon’s Nielsen ratings with Rentrak set top box data, as well as with TiVo’s set top box data. Apparently, only the Nielsen data show a dramatic drop in Nickelodeon’s ratings. 

The fact that the MRC apparently considers set top box data to be a meaningful basis for comparison in assessing the accuracy of Nielsen’s panel data represents an important stepping stone in the validation of STB measurement (somewhat ironic, considering that the MRC has yet to formally accredit any STB measurement services).

At the same time, STB services seem to be making inroads amongst both buyers and sellers in the audience marketplace.  A couple of weeks back, the Post-Newsweek television station group signed a deal with Rentrak.  Of particular significance is the fact that the station group plans on using Rentrak’s set top box data as currency for deal making.  Also quite recently, large media buyers such as Camelot Strategic Marketing & Media, and Carat have signed deals with Rentrak.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, Rentrak’s recent offering of “exact” commercial ratings (that is, the actual rating for the specific commercial) holds substantial appeal for media buyers dissatisfied with Nielsen’s average commercial ratings (which is the average rating of all of the commercials that air within a particular program).

Not everyone, though, is optimistic about STBs being able to replace people meters.  A couple of recent pieces by MediaPost’s Gary Holmes (one dealing with the use of STB data at the national level; and one dealing with the use of STB data at the local level) shed a very skeptical light on the prospects for STB data, via a very comprehensive assessment of the complex set of technological and institutional factors that impact the introduction and diffusion of new audience measurement systems.

Holmes predicts that the likely outcome is some form of a hybrid panel/STB system (something Nielsen is currently working on). And, given the way that online audience measurement is quickly moving toward a hybrid approach (utilizing both panel and site-centric systems), it seems reasonable that a similar path will be followed in television.  The bottom line is that today’s electronic media environment (regardless of platform) represents a degree of fragmentation and complexity that exceeds the capabilities of any one measurement approach.



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