New Ratings Meter Prompts Debate: Exactly When Should Nielsen Flash Lights During Shows?
The decision is a critical next step for a new TV metering system Nielsen has begun rolling out nationwide. The new meters, dubbed the "A/P," utilizes active and passive codes that can measure ratings in digital TV environments such as digital set-top devices, digital video recorders and video-on-demand platforms. Nielsen has already begun using the new meters to replace its older TV set-meters to measure household ratings, but has not yet gotten industry approval to use them to measure ratings for people in those households. To do that, it needs to determine when to prompt them.
With its old meters, Nielsen utilized a "tuning prompt," which flashed blinking lights every time a viewer turned on their TV set, or changed a channel. The new A/P meters can't work that way and require a "time-based prompt," which would flash blinking lights at a set interval to remind viewers to log into their people meters.
How long those intervals should be could have a significant impact on ratings. They could also impact viewing behavior by becoming a new irritation for TV viewers, as lights start blinking in the middle of their favorite shows.
Nielsen is believed to have narrowed its prompting plan down to two possible intervals: one that would prompt viewers every 21 minutes; and another that would prompt them every 42 minutes. TV executives would like to see Nielsen implement the shorter duration, which is more likely to encourage viewers to register their viewing, which in turn would yield higher ratings. Others are concerned that the 21-minute interval might be too intrusive for many viewers.
But an even bigger question is what is the right duration from a methodological point-of-view, meaning what amount of time between prompting would yield the most accurate ratings in terms of how people actually watch TV. "Nobody knows, because no research has been done on that," says an executive familiar with the debate.
It's not a new debate. Nielsen has been waging it internally ever since it began developing the A/P meters. Now that it is rolling them out, it has no choice but to resolve it.
To date, Nielsen has only introduced the A/P meters in so-called "meter/diary" markets, or TV markets that use set-meters for household tuning data, and paper diaries for persons viewing data. In those markets, the A/P meters are now generating household data, but the diaries continue to provide persons data. In July, Nielsen plans to begin using the A/P meters to record persons viewing in its people meter markets.
The Television Committee of ratings watchdog the Media Rating Council recently approved Nielsen's use of the A/P meters for household tuning, but not for persons data and is currently conducting an audit of the time-based prompts.
"It's a difficult issue," says George Ivie, executive director of the MRC, "because the best time prompt for a teenager might be a different than for a senior."
While Nielsen plans to initially pick one duration for all viewers, he said the ratings company is also considering a plan down the road that might create "custom intervals" for different types of viewers.
While all of this is designed to get a better picture of how people actually watch TV, there is also an irresistible urge among some TV executives to select a prompt that would inflate TV ratings, especially as the TV industry is poised to be impacted by a range of new TV viewing issues - especially DVRs.