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KS16381As television viewers have changed their practices—such that more and more people catch the latest shows on their tablets or smartphones rather than home-based television screens—marketing researchers have unfortunately failed to keep up. For example, Nielsen, the most famous provider of ratings that reflect people’s viewing patterns, maintained two separate measures: one for regular television and one for online viewing. It had no metric for views through other forms of streaming media.

That gap may be about to disappear though. In the immediate future, Nielsen plans to introduce a Twitter-based measure that will assess the number of tweets about a show as a measure of popularity. Its initial metric suggests that every tweet represents about 50 people watching the show, regardless of where or how.

Then next year, it plans to introduce a mobile-linked measurement system. With this proprietary method, Nielsen will enable the networks to issue their content through mobile applications that contain a preexisting link back to Nielsen’s data collection methods. When a viewer downloads the app with the content, Nielsen knows it and can add that viewership to the show’s and its network’s ratings.

Such measures are critical for content providers, because ratings determine advertising sales and rates. A show or network with higher ratings attracts more potential advertisers and can charge them more. In recent months, when the traditional ratings formats showed that viewership was declining, advertisers grew concerned. At the same time, the networks protested loudly that the ratings were undercutting the extent of their true market by ignoring the people watching on their tablets.

Nielsen’s moves seek to address those complaints, though they also have sparked some new concerns. In particular, insufficient evidence exists to confirm whether Twitter numbers are really a good representation of viewership. Without strong support for the link between tweets and the actual popularity of a show, the new measure might be meaningless. In addition, the mobile system is not slated to be ready for at least another year. Even when it appears, some observers suggest that it could be blocked by security features in Apple operating systems that prevent metering software from running simultaneously with other programs.

Thus marketing researchers face a problem without a ready solution. They know that consumers are moving away from their televisions, but they have no idea how to measure what they do after those viewers move.

Source: Amol Sharma and Suzanne Vranica, “Nielsen to Add Data for Mobile TV Viewing,” The Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2013