Nielsen’s overhaul of its local measurement service with set-top-box (STB) data and a new code reader will begin rolling out late this year in
the Charlotte, Dallas and St. Louis markets. The new data will be available alongside the current ratings in early 2013, allowing stations an opportunity to evaluate it before a switchover.
Station groups with a presence in the three initial markets -- including NBCUniversal, Belo, Cox and Gannett -- will be able to both explore the data’s reliability and ways to integrate it into their workflow systems over a period that could run six months. The three launch markets currently get ratings via local people meters (LPMs).
As the new service takes hold in the October-December period this year, Nielsen will begin implementing it in five markets that use set meters: Albuquerque, Birmingham, Greenville, S.C., Nashville and New Orleans. Also, the methodology will debut in 12 markets to be announced soon that use diaries.
With 20 markets experimenting with the new methodology by early 2013, the plan is to have the system up and running in most of the country's 210 markets some time in 2014. All markets will have a “parallel period” to examine the new and current systems side by side to get comfortable.
“We want them to start evaluating how they would do business with it,” said Pat Dineen, a Nielsen senior vice president.
A permanent switchover won’t come without lengthy and detailed conversations with clients, some of whom have expressed eagerness to push ahead with the new system. Others have expressed reticence. From stations to ad agencies, all want more detail and assurances.
“They’re not going to give us an easy time on that,” Dineen said. “We need to be very, very clear and very, very transparent. We need to work with the (Media Rating Council) to make sure our methodology works and works for the whole marketplace.”
The new "hybrid" service does not throw out the entire legacy system. Markets will continue to use panels derived from LPMs, set meters and diaries -- although the sample sizes in LPM and set-meter markets will be effectively quadrupled and doubled in diary markets.
Those panels will be supplemented by STB data and code readers. The newly developed code readers are electronic devices that will separately monitor every TV in a home, picking up audio signals from content carrying a Nielsen watermark.
Nielsen's belief is the combination will allow for more precise modeling as the legacy operations provide information on demographics. The STB data offers granular second-by-second viewing data. The code readers serve as a backstop to ensure viewing is not counted if a set-top-box remains on, but no one is watching.
Nielsen believes the hybrid model will allow it to project ratings for a full market, which includes homes that receive only over-the-air TV and others that don’t have a set-top box.
It might also protect against potentially skewed data coming from STBs. For example, the two largest cable operators, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, don’t make data available to Nielsen or any other measurement company.
Right away, data from a huge portion of U.S. homes is unobtainable. And, in a market where one of those leading operators serves loads of homes -- such as Philadelphia or New York City -- using STB information to project results for the full market carries a risk.
Nielsen obtains STB data from cable operator Charter and DirecTV, but concedes it will need access to more sources. Return-path data is a broader term often used to describe STB data and other streams.
Clients have lobbied for some use of STB data, since they believe it could cut down on huge swings in ratings. Nielsen believes the information along with the code reader should offer more stability.
“Until I see data and until I have a better understanding of the complete methodology, it’s hard to say,” said Pat Liguori, who oversees research for the ABC-owned stations.
Clients will have more to evaluate than just TV measurement. The new service is designed to capture multiplatform consumption across TVs, PCs, mobile devices and tablets. With sample sizes growing significantly, Dineen said the plan is to be able to gauge four-screen usage in the homes added.