Second Thoughts: Nielsen Encounters New DVR, Delays TV Without Viewers Knowledge

In a surprising new twist in Nielsen's efforts to measure TV viewing via digital video recorders, the ratings company has encountered an unexpected problem: some DVRs are delaying "live" viewing by as much as five seconds, unbeknownst to the people who use them. Nielsen apparently was among them, and late Thursday advised clients it has detected the problem and is introducing new "edit rules" to deal with it. A copy of the new rules, and explanations about the nature of the problem were not available at presstime, but at least one observer believes the viewing delays may have caused Nielsen's meters to be out of sync with the "machine time" of those DVRs.

Nielsen said it encountered the problem on new models of TV set-top devices that have DVR hardware integrated into them, indicating they may be new versions introduced by cable or satellite operators, not standalone DVR marketers such as TiVo. Nielsen said the hardware "automatically delay 'live' viewing by four to five seconds without consumers' choice or knowledge. Viewers assume they are in live mode."

While it is common for hard drive-based recording devices such as DVRs to cause some delays in the transmission of TV signals while they download content, they are normally fractions of a second. At four to five seconds, the delay is significant enough to create distortions with so-called "real time" measurement. Nielsen's new edit rules presumably adjust for that, and anticipate even more significant changes in the linear nature of "live" viewing in the future.

"While this is the first equipment of its kind where we have seen this occur, we anticipate that other future models will incorporate similar technology designs also resulting in delayed live viewing," Nielsen forewarned in its notice.

The disclosure represents another interesting twist in a debate that has been escalating between Madison Avenue and TV networks over the definition and value of "live" vs. recorded TV programming. Many media buyers say they plan to negotiate advertising guarantees and post their deals based only on "live" viewing data, while the networks would prefer to include as much recorded playback as possible. The rift is expected to be a major negotiating point during the 2006-07 upfront advertising marketplace.

Technically, Nielsen's rules deem any delay of live viewing caused by DVRs to be included as playback, not live ratings, though in the case of these new DVRs, viewers are not causing the delays, the machines are.

While the discovery raises important questions about TV ratings and advertising guarantees, it also says something about the temporal nature of media.

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