TV viewership used to be fairly easy to measure. Back when there was only one place to get TV content—namely, a TV set—measuring it was a fairly straightforward matter of having a representative number of viewers record what they watched over a period of time. The current picture is far more complicated.
Viewers might check out shows on their laptops, phones, or tablets as well as on TV, and the programming could range from YouTube videos to network dramas to content from streaming on-demand services. A lack of transparency about viewership is a prime issue for marketers.
How to Track Streaming
For a long time, Nielsen didn’t track streaming services. The New York Times explains that even in 2015, the company’s 20-page user diaries offered no space to record such programming. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2014 that Nielsen launched a program to let its Nielsen Meters analyze audio of shows to determine which shows were being streamed.
There hasn’t been steady ratings data so far, though Nielsen revealed in June that the premiere of the fourth season of Orange Is the New Black drew 6.7 million viewers on the first day it was available, according to Fortune, which would make it one of the most-watched shows on cable. Nielsen rival Symphony Advanced Media also tracks viewership for Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, as reported in Variety. Even more promising, the newly merged comScore and Rentrak plan to offer ratings for streaming services gathered across multiple devices on a time-shifted basis.
The streaming services themselves aren’t interested in providing such figures. Netflix executives argued in Fortune that since their company doesn’t make money through advertising, it’s not required to share such data.
The other variable that obscures TV viewership data is time-shifted viewing. Nielsen introduced C3 in 2007, which measured viewing within three days of a show’s airing. Since 2012, C7 has been the preferred measurement, as Nielsen reports that 95 percent of DVR viewing usually occurs within seven days of a program’s original broadcast, according to MediaPost.
These days, of course, many people are viewing programming on devices other than their TVs. Nielsen is expected to address such viewing in its long-awaited Total Audience Measurement, which is set to be available to all Nielsen clients in March 2017 (and which is currently only available to select clients involved in its development.)
Nielsen’s new system comes at a time when viewership has grown much more complex. In a recent nonscientific survey in MediaPost, freelance media consultant Steve Sternberg asked his Facebook friends what they were watching. The average had eight programs queued on his or her DVR. Two-thirds had watched at least one program on demand in the previous week, and two-thirds also watched one of the three top streaming services during the previous week, spending 5.5 hours watching such content. “This seems like a lot of viewing not picked up,” Sternberg wrote.
That may soon change. But the new ratings may not matter. Advertisers are realizing that they’re not as interested in reaching huge numbers of consumers; rather, they want to reach the right consumers.