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The Boob Tube

Nielsen Changes Its Definition of “TV Watching” to Reflect How People Actually Watch TV

I’m about to say something that will blow your mind. You ready? A lot of people nowadays don’t have cable. And yet they still watch TV shows! I know, I know. I’ll give you a second to recover from the shock. Remember to breathe.

OK, so the fact that a large number of people watch some, if not all, of their TV shows through an Internet-connected TV instead of stumping for an often outrageously priced cable package isn’t exactly new. But apparently it’s quite the discovery for the Nielsen Company, which is just now getting around to changing its definition of “TV viewing” to include this newfangled thing called “The Internet.”

A show’s Nielsen rating is determined by the viewing habits of the approximately 23,000 “Nielsen families” who have a Nielsen box attached to their TV. But if one of those families watches a show using an Internet-connected device, say, an Xbox, it doesn’t count towards the show’s ratings. Understandably, networks don’t like that.

Nielsen has moved with the times a bit in that they now count shows recorded on DVR if they’re watched up to seven days after they air. But with the decision made by the What Nielsen Measures Committee to count Internet-connected TVs in addition to ones with cable it looks like they’ve finally realized, hey, sometimes people don’t have/use cable!

Writes The Hollywood Reporter:

By September 2013, when the next TV season begins, Nielsen expects to have in place new hardware and software tools in the nearly 23,000 TV homes it samples. Those measurement systems will capture viewership not just from the 75 percent of homes that rely on cable, satellite and over the air broadcasts but also viewing via devices that deliver video from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, from so-called over-the-top services and from TV enabled game systems like the X-Box [sic] and PlayStation.

While some use of iPads and other tablets that receive broadband in the home will be included in the first phase of measurement improvements, a second phase is envisioned to include such devices in a more comprehensive fashion. The second phase is envisioned to roll out on a slower timetable, according to sources, will the overall goal to attempt to capture video viewing of any kind from any source.

Nielsen’s new plan will only include streaming services like Netflix and Amazon if they’re streamed to a TV or, eventually, tablets. And only those services that mirror traditional viewing (see: have the same commercials ) will be counted. I know that an episode streamed on Hulu will have different commercials from the broadcast version, besides which Netflix doesn’t usually release its viewership numbers, so I’m not exactly sure how this new system will work.

It’s a step in the right direction, but some viewing habits will still be excluded. A lot of people, myself included, don’t have a TV or a tablet at all. For the past three years I’ve watched TV pretty much exclusively on my computer. So when I watch Community on Hulu the day after it airs, the show still wouldn’t get credit for that. It wouldn’t anyway, because I’m not a “Nielsen family,” but… look, what I’m saying is that the ratings system is fundamentally screwed up. But I’m not sure if there’s a way it couldn’t be. People watch TV in all sorts of different ways now, and I can’t think of one way by which all of those (or a representative sample) could be counted. I’d say that any solution should be twofold: Nielsen should change how it determines ratings, but networks also need to take long, hard look at how those ratings play into their decision-making.

(via: A.V. Club)

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  • Anonymous

    It’s funny because shows that are popular in geek circles like Community (and half the stuff on SyFy) tend to constantly be in danger of cancellation because nobody is watching them on TV. If you could factor in the amount of people who watch it (legally) online via streaming and Hulu, I wonder how much of a jump in viewership you’d see.

  • ravenlunatick

    Ahhh…good times. :) I was a Neilsen family for 3 years. All we ever watched on our actual TV was the Simpsons and CP24 (local news ticker station).

  • Anonymous

    If it only counts those shows that include advertising, then either nothing on Netflix will count at all or (worse) Netflix will start force-feeding us ads.

  • Captain ZADL

    I’ve not had cable for over 5 years now. Just Hulu and Netflix, and while I do have a TV, it’s connected to a Mac Mini. So, it’s technically a monitor for the computer that’s mounted on a wall.


  • Morven

    QueerJock2: there’s also the pretty open secret that Nielsen has always discounted the raw data for sci-fi and other minority interest shows. They are, apparently, so convinced that fans deliberately exaggerate viewership that they underrate them.

    Nielsen does bad statistics and nobody should rely on them for anything.

  • I.Join

    Of course nothing on Netflix counts, because Nielsen needs to estimate how many people are watching ads, not a movie/show.
    That’s because ads pay accordingly to the (estimated) number of viewers: If you buy something on Netflix you’re already paying the producers for it (thru Netflix), and no money should go to advertised companies. In such case they don’t even need to know your age or other personal data (as Nielsen do), you’re counted as a highest rank viewer.
    Suppose you watch a show on TV: accordingly to your age and other parameters, you’re considered or not a potential buyer, so the advertised companies pay the TV, who pays the producers. For a show to continue to be produced a minimum revenue must be maintained.
    Suppose you buy that show via Netflix: advertisers won’t pay the TV for you, and the TV won’t pay the producers, because you’re not watching ads… but you’re anyway paying the producers yourself (thru Netflix), so, for the producers, you count more than another viewer.
    The problem is: if the producers and the TV studios that has ordered a show are not one and the same, the TV could find unproductive to continue to air that show. Unless Netflix customers alone are enough to keep the show running, the show is canceled by the TV because it’s unproductive, albeit it’s remunerative for the producers.
    The easiest way to overcome this problem would be for the TVs to allow you to watch the shows they air via their own websites (either with adds or as pay-per-view).
    Nowadays people have broadband Internet connections, and many devices able to receive a streaming (computers, X-Box/PS3, tablets, cheap TV-connected microcomputers (Google “MK802 III”), etc), so TV studios could spare A LOT of money by switching off traditional transmitters/stopping to maintain expensive and obsolete cables (which require custom decoders, which are not free, and maintenance).

  • Anonymous

    Yes, nobody watches TV on televisions anymore…may everyone join me in saying…DUUUHHH…. The economy is different, the 18-40 year old’s can’t necessarily afford big flat screens anymore. We adapt, and so do smart companies like Netflix and Hulu. And although Nielsen is achingly slow to adapt along with us, at least they are realizing that the way media is consumed is drastically different then it was ten years ago! When media changes, you HAVE to change the ways you monitor it, this seems common sense, but it really hits home how just so much of the older generation that controls government, legislation, media ect, is just having a really tough time learning how to change.

  • Jace Atkins

    Are networks able to retrieve viewership figures from services like Hulu? If such a thing is possible, it seems like Hulu and co have the opportunity to shoulder their way into the ratings provision market by covering a base that Nielson isn’t currently equipped to cover.