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Ratings giant losing its grip?

TV: It's changed a lot over the years.
  • TV: It's changed a lot over the years.

We always hear about television ratings but very few of us actually understand how that information is collected. The general impression is that what you watch is monitored, recorded and analyzed and the decisions you make with your remote have some bearing on what shows stick around and which get axed. But that's not really the case.

The traditional methods for analyzing viewership and demographic data are changing. One local station is moving away from the industry giant, Nielsen, and looking for new ways to collect information on not only what people watch, but who those people are.  

For years, the Nielsen Co. has been the leader when it comes to ratings. Stations subscribe to the company and get ratings reports four times per year. They can then use that information, complete with demographic breakdowns, to sell advertising.

Here's how it works. Nielsen solicits families, either by phone or mail, to become Nielsen homes. These families agree to have metering equipment installed on their TVs, cable boxes and satellite dishes. Nielsen then tracks what people watch. Families are also given diaries to record what they watch each day. Most television markets are metered and use diaries for supplemental information. Smaller markets, like Little Rock, use the diary method exclusively.

Many markets have changed over to metered ratings, either by their own volition or at the request of advertisers. The idea is that the metered system provides more accurate ratings by monitoring exactly what someone is watching and for how long. It can also give advertisers a better idea of how to target their ad buys. But, according to Larry Audas, president and general manager of KTHV in Little Rock, there hasn't been a big push in this market to make the switch. 

“There would have to be at least consensus among a couple or three of the primary stations,” Audas says. “It just hasn't been on the table. If you think about it there has actually been the opposite movement, one of the stations in the market has dropped Nielsen altogether.”

That station is KARK. General manager Rick Rogala says there are a couple of reasons for that. One, he feels they have a pretty good idea who's watching, just from viewer input and by using other services.

Secondly, he says, “We know that the system is flawed. You can't, in today's media marketplace, measure viewing by asking someone to fill out a diary. The average household watches television for eight hours a day. So to ask them to write down what they watch for a week and to do that accurately — it just doesn't work.”

Rogala says the number of Nielsen's competitors grows every day. Other companies like Simmons and Rentrack offer similar services. There's even a group called the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement, established by some of the world's biggest media companies and ad agencies. The group's purpose is to find better ways to track media consumption.

The big push for more detailed viewership information, Rogala says, is being led by advertisers and execs who want more bang for their buck.

“We have a system right now that measures this stuff,” he says. “It's called the Internet. It tells us, by the second, where people go and where they come from, what they click on, how long they spend there. I think that the more that people use the web as an additional form of advertising and the more variables they see that can be measured, then the more they're going to demand that all of their media give them that type of thing.”

And right now, at least in this market, Nielsen isn't doing that. In the July ratings report, there were 687 Nielsen families surveyed. So that means 687 families dictate which shows prosper or fail, and what the advertising rates are. 

As for the Little Rock market, don't expect a switch to a metered system anytime soon. In other markets that have changed over, there's generally a ratings shake-up, something the local stations might not want to risk. 

“I think Today's THV would fare fine either way,” Audas says. “There would probably be some areas where we would excel and there might be some where we wouldn't find any benefit. There's no way to know for sure.”

One thing is for sure, long-standing industry methods for collecting viewer information are changing.

“And we whole-heartedly support it,” Rogala says. “We're constantly looking for additional research. We love the relationship we have with our provider but I want more.” 

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