Several research companies, including Nielsen and one of its chief rivals, TNS Media Research, have begun developing such systems, and some big media shops have begun dabbling with the data. Publicis' Starcom MediaVest Group, in particular, has begun licensing data from some of the systems that have been commercially deployed, and claims to be gleaning early marketplace insights that give its clients a competitive advantage over advertisers who continue to rely on old school methods based on samples of audiences reporting viewing via meters or paper and pencil diaries.
In the past year, the Publicis units have cut deals to utilize set-top data from a panel of more than 100,000 TV households being developed by TNS and satellite TV giant DirecTV.
While TNS has been most aggressive in commercially deploying such systems, Nielsen has also been cutting deals to gain access to digital set-top data, and companies as far flung as Google, which has a comparable agreement to utilize data from EchoStar's Dish satellite network, have also begun offering set-top data to advertisers and agencies as part of its Google TV Ads program.
While set-top data is based on empirical TV tuning behavior, it is not without concerns among some media researchers, mainly because it does not represent the entire TV viewing population - only those who receive TV signals via a digital set-top device - and because the set-tops do not identify individuals or their demographics within their households. Researchers, however, are looking at ways of supplementing the digital set-top data with additional survey-based research that can be used to model demographics.
"With the ability to time-shift video consumption, come the demands for greater accountability and increased data granularity within the commercial broadcast/cable industry," reads the request issued by the Nielsen-funded Council for Research Excellence. "For these reasons, set-top box data are increasingly being heralded as the future of television audience measurement."
The request has a deadline of Sept. 12 for proposals that would explore the viability of utilizing set-top data as an alternative to survey-based TV ratings, and sets a timetable of fielding research in the fourth quarter of this year with the study to be completed by Jan. 15, 2009.
The request does not outline a specific budget, but the council has received more than $12 million in funding from Nielsen, and has only allocated a fraction of that, the biggest being a $3.5 million grant for a comprehensive observational study of how people use media, which is being fielded by Ball State University's Center for Media Design.