How Will Nielsen Battle Back?

Warranted or not, Nielsen's ratings are often blasted as non-representative and capriciously collected. Just last week, Slate blasted the company's box system for skewing the numbers at this crucial point in the TV year, right before May sweeps. The Big Money argues that if you really want to stage a "Save My Show" campaign, you and all your friends had better watch it online -- rather than on your old TV set. At least then, your "vote" will be counted -- Chadwick Martin argues that you just can't trust Nielsen's minute sample size and clunky system to pick up on a groundswell movement.

Talk about timely -- TiVo to the rescue? The television DVR company company announced a new service today called Stop/Watch Local Markets, which will begin to gather an incredibly detailed list of anonymous information from subscribers -- information that, while not directly supplanting Nielsen data, greatly expands and broadens the reach, and is of particular interest to adverstisers. (As TiVo's vice president of audience research and measurement put it to Variety, "I would say that our product addresses a whole bunch of deficiencies in the current system." It is ON, my good sir.)

How they'll do it: TiVo has an incredible, incomparable resource in its subscriber base, which spans many markets and is big enough that it can produce larger, more stable and more reliable sample sizes in both major minor markets, from every conceivable source (digital cable, analog cable, satellite, over-the-air and telephone). The company's new tracking system will feature:

  • much, much larger sample sizes, ranging from 25,000 in the top 20 markets, down to around 5,000 in the smallest local markets (Nielsen's sample sizes are between 400 to 900 households in the local markets)
  • second-by-second audience measurement, tracked on a graph, which allows retailers to see which specific commercials are -- or aren't -- being seen, as well as how "interest" fluctuates over a program
  • anonymous DVR-viewing-behavior monitors, which measures commercial fast-forwarding -- this marks the first time that this statistic will be measured.

Tentatively, it'll go into effect this summer. How can Nielsen attempt to battle back? A few ideas:

  • There is some data that TiVo's privacy protection clauses prevent it from gathering -- such as demographic information. Compared to Nielsen's more qualitatively representative samples, TiVo's pool is older, whiter, better educated and richer -- a more limited glimpse for advertisers.
  • TiVo's DVR business is down 25 percent from its early 2007 apex, and TV-DVR business could go the way of the Beta tape if online viewership continues to supplant TV viewing. If TiVo is only gathering information through its DVR subscriptions, and those subscriptions are declining, Nielsen could be facing a very short-lived competitor.

Let the games begin!