Excellent article in Wired by Tom vanderBilt about why the ratings information from research organisations like Nielsen are less and less valuable in a multiscreen world. Although, just being liked on Facebook, or followed on Twitter is still a crude measurement, it sure beats electronic diaries. Nielsen has been incredibly slow to adapt to changing audience behaviour. I note that Tweetbot has added multimedia filters, an obvious way of competing with GetGlue.
All of your favorite shows are ratings dogs.Breaking Bad, Girls, Mad Men. Each struggled to top a score of 2.5, rarely cracks Nielsen’s top 25. There are two possible conclusions to draw from these facts: (1) All these shows should be canceled, or (2) maybe the ratings are measuring the wrong thing. Since the 1970s, television has been ruled by the Nielsen Family—25,000 households whose TV habits collectively provide a statistical snapshot of a nation’s viewing behaviour. Over the years, the Nielsen rating has been tweaked, but it still serves one fundamental purpose: to gauge how many people are watching a given show on a conventional television set. But that’s not how we watch any more. Hulu, Netflix, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Roku, iTunes, smartphone, tablet—none of these platforms or devices are reflected in the Nielsen rating. (In February Nielsen announced that this fall it would finally begin including Internet streaming to TV sets in its ratings.
In the years after its founding in Chicago in 1923, the A.C. Nielsen Company thrived, thanks to a commitment to math and technology. While its competitors called random households and asked them what they happened to be listening to on the radio at that moment, Nielsen developed more sophisticated sampling methods. Rather than rely solely on self-reporting, Nielsen employed a device called the Audimeter that used photographic tape to automatically record listening activity. When television arrived, Nielsen used similar meters for viewing—although they were supplemented with paper diaries. But by the late 1950s, Nielsen sat comfortably atop the media-ratings industry. It had few competitors, and since television habits remained static, it had little reason to keep innovating.
But the widespread adoption of the DVR in the mid-2000s roused Nielsen from its torpor. In 2007 the company hammered out its “C3″ rating, a metric that includes the number of people who watched a show—and therefore the commercials—up to three days after its original airing. (The company also came up with a C7 tabulation, tracking audiences for a full week.) Networks loved the number—it seemed a truer representation of their shows’ actual audience. But at first advertisers didn’t pay much attention. Viewers who recorded a show on a DVR were assumed to be fast-forwarding through the commercials and thus immune to sales pitches.
Over time, though, that meant ignoring more and more viewers. Today, it’s not rare for a huge portion of a show’s audience to watch it well after it originally aired. CBS, for example, recently released data showing that the viewership for its Sherlock Holmes reboot, Elementary, skyrocketed when seven days were tracked—its rating among the valuable 18- to 49-year-old demographic shot up 64 percent. (And there’s no reason to stop at seven days. Millions of hours of TV get watched beyond the one-week cutoff. Science fiction shows, it turns out, are particularly likely to be watched more than a week after they air.) Eventually, advertisers began to find ways to reach even those ad-skipping viewers. They created campaigns that mimicked the look of the show they aired against—in some cases using the same locations and actors—in an effort to trick fans into releasing the fast-forward button. (There’s even a name for these spots: podbusters.)
And they optimized their spots so that their brand could be recognizable even at six times the normal playing speed. Indeed, some researchers have found that fast-forwarders are even more attentive to ads, since they’re watching closely to see when the commercial block has ended. The lesson is that once you identify and track how an audience actually interacts with television, it’s only a matter of time until advertisers create ways to sell stuff to that audience. And when a full 40 percent of Twitter’s traffic during peak usage is about television, it’s not hard to see where the action is headed. “This is a huge topic of conversation,” says Steve Hasker, Nielsen’s president of media products and advertiser solutions. “Their ad sales guys want to be able to go to the market and say, ‘Our program has three times the engagement, because we’ve got many more people tweeting about it—and by the way, they’re young, they’re tech-savvy, and they buy lots of products.’
And that’s why, some day in the near future, a show’s tweetability may be just as crucial as the sheer size of its audience. It’s something that advertisers and networks already realize, albeit in a vague and unquantified way. But as Nielsen—and other analytics companies—race to capture a show’s true impact across all platforms, it will change the way those shows are valued. That’s good news for television that is worth talking about, watching again, chewing on, Tumbling over. It’s good news for all of us.