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Harder and harder to measure TV viewership
Nielsen says it regularly discusses how it releases ratings with all of its clients and there’s been no consensus on change. Most people watch their favorite shows as quickly as they can, said Pat McDonough, Nielsen senior vice president of insights and analysis.
Each week the average American spends 32 hours and 15 minutes watching live television, according to a Nielsen study issued last month. More than 12 hours is spent either watching time-shifted TV or DVDs, playing on game consoles, surfing the Internet or watching video on computer or mobile devices, the study said.
“The one thing most people don’t think about is a lot of the additional viewing is rolling out slowly over time and right now, live plus same day viewing is the best way to measure,” she said. “It may not be that way five years from now.”
Networks dispute the notion that things are changing slowly, although they are happy that Nielsen will soon be able to estimate how much television is being watched on broadband. There’s a limit to the information, though: Nielsen can’t yet tell specifically what programs people are watching this way.
Later this year, Nielsen hopes to roll out a pilot program to identify what people are watching on iPads. It’s unclear when this technology will be available for other tablet brands or for smartphones.
The company measures some online video streaming and includes it within its time-shifted reports. However, this picture is partial, too. Nielsen can measure streamed programs only if they have the same commercials shown on TV, and not every website does this.
Netflix’s release of an entire 13-episode season of the well-reviewed series “House of Cards” on Feb. 1 was a television landmark, evidence that a lot more “television” content is coming from non-traditional sources. Nielsen has no idea how many people have seen “House of Cards,” though. Netflix knows. But it won’t tell.
People are increasingly spending time catching up on series they’ve caught on to midstream, the phenomenon known as binge viewing. No one really knows who is spending an evening watching three episodes from the first season of “Homeland” instead of live TV. Nielsen has an oblique way to illustrate that binge viewing is a reality: When AMC’s “The Walking Dead” returned from a hiatus on Feb. 10, the 12.3 million people who watched that night was a series record and evidence that it had attracted new fans during a pause in original episodes.
That episode of “The Walking Dead” was the ninth most-watched television show in prime time that week, but it would have taken some investigation to know that. Nielsen ranks broadcast and cable shows separately even though that distinction means little to a younger generation of viewers. TV is TV.
Cable networks are in no hurry to change that because, with the exception of the biggest hits, even relatively unsuccessful broadcast programs get more viewers than cable.
There’s a similar dynamic with PBS. The public broadcasting system generally doesn’t pay Nielsen to have its programs rated, although it will on special occasions. The 8.2 million people who watched the third-season finale of “Downton Abbey” on Feb. 17 was more than anything seen on ABC, Fox or NBC that night. No one would have known that unless they’d seen a report generated by a PBS press release.
The numbers-crunchers within the industry know all of this.
Nielsen’s Tuesday rankings _ and the achievement of getting into the week’s Top Ten _ used to mean the world. Now it’s a small part of television’s picture.
EDITOR’S NOTE _ David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org or on Twitter (at)dbauder.
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