Nielsen today is expected to announce plans to begin rolling out a controversial method it says will fix some antiquated parts of its local TV measurement system: a process that would effectively use mathematical modeling to estimate the audience composition and demographics of much of its local TV ratings estimates.
The move, which is part of a broader “sample expansion plan” to boost the number of households and persons represented in all of Nielsen’s ratings estimates, was announced broadly in September. At that time, Nielsen said it had previously briefed key clients leading up to that notification and that most of them were very supportive of the plan, although some felt it was questionable research methodology that needed to be tested and evaluated further.
Exact details of Nielsen’s decision to move forward with its so-called “viewer assignment” method will be disclosed when Nielsen makes the announcement, but it is expected to begin impacting official local TV ratings estimates in the next few months and initially will not be accredited by the industry’s self-regulatory media ratings watchdog, the Media Rating Council.
“Nielsen personnel have indicated to me that they will coordinate with MRC, our Television Committee and our auditors in moving these initiatives forward,” George Ivie, CEO and executive director of the MRC, told Media Daily News at presstime, adding that Nielsen executives had indicated they ultimately plan to comply with MRC standards and maintain accreditation for various services affected by the change.
Many of Nielsen’s non-metered local TV markets have been operating without MRC accredited ratings for a while now, and Nielsen executives have said the new method will fix many of the problems associated with its outmoded paper diary system that has been used to determine the audience composition and demographics in many local TV ratings markets for most of its existence as a ratings company.
But some researchers believe it is the most fundamental shift in the way Nielsen estimates audiences since it rolled out the people meter system for national TV ratings in 1987, and that more time is needed to evaluate the impact and validity of the method.
In a nutshell, the viewer assignment method mathematically models and ascribes audience estimates for non-people meter markets with data generated from its people meter sample.
“Nielsen will apply a demographic assignment methodology informed by [national people meter] viewing behavior to report persons level ratings,” a Nielsen spokesperson told MDN in September, adding, “We've been working on this with the industry for nearly two years.”
A Nielsen spokesperson said she was not available to comment on the new announcement at presstime, but Nielsen previously said it would release so-called “impact data” about the new method before it rolled the method out as official currency for TV advertising buys and programming decisions.
It was not clear at presstime who or how many clients may have seen that data, but at least one long-time Nielsen client characterized the move as “ill conceived and certain to do more harm than good.
“Making up viewing estimates is always a bad idea.”
While mathematical modeling is far from a new concept in Nielsen’s ratings -- the researcher routinely weights under-represented segments of its audiences mathematically to bring them into balance with the audiences it is able to capture data for -- the new viewer assignment method takes it to a new level, because it is treating the behaviors of people in one sample -- the national people meter respondents -- in a way that is representative of viewers in non-people meter households.