Twas the night after Christmas, when all through the house
Lots of gadgets were whirring, but none had a mouse.
People meters were strung to their TVs with care,
In the hopes that some ratings soon would be there.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist. That holiday metaphor may be overwrought, but it’s also incredibly apt, because the days after Christmas have always proved challenging for television audience measurement, because of the impact all those new gizmo and gadgetry gifts have on the way households watch television -- and even how they connect, or increasingly, bypass it.
It was a challenge in the old days when Nielsen field technicians merely had to deal with new TV sets, VCRs, DVRs, and DVD players being installed, but over time, as new “connected” -- and arguably disconnected -- TV devices have emerged, the challenge has gone from the field workers to the head office, which has to decide what even constitutes TV viewing, and which devices and modes of accessing television and other video content fall under its definition.
Those decisions will be made soon, most likely well in advance of the start of next fall’s new TV season. And to their credit, Nielsen executives have been extremely open in discussing the possible changes in the way it defines television viewing, and the TV universe estimates that go along with it, but I don’t think anyone is really prepared for what will happen when it is actually implemented, and the denominator for television currency shifts from television sets to, well, anything that can display a “television” signal.
The transition won’t be easy, but it is inevitable. And it’s inevitable that it will happen this year, because we all know that “television” no longer is just television sets, and all Nielsen has been doing for the past many years that people have been unwrapping Xboxes, Rokus, iPads, and the ilk, has been to sweep their viewing behavior under the tatters of wrapping paper piled in the corner.
It’s not the first time television has had to redefine itself, but unlike past redefinitions that were spurred mainly by one dominant technology -- cable TV, VCRs, DVRs -- the ones doing the defining now are so varied that it may not be possible to neatly retrofit the way people experience television across them. Ultimately, Nielsen and its clients will agree to some solution, and that will become the new standard bearer for “television” that is the basis for TV ratings, and advertising buys. But the reality is that people will continue to expand the ways they connect with video content, and it will be up to the advertising industry to figure out whether those consumer video viewing experiences fit into its definitions -- and budgets -- for television.
And until that happens, let me wish a happy Christmas to all, and to all, a good fight.