On Aug. 27, Nielsen implemented a change in its policies that allowed a broadcast network to combine two airings of the same show into one reported rating, so long as the program and the commercials surrounding it were the same. NBC used the new rule to combine unduplicated viewing of the Sept. 24 premiere of "Heroes," which happened to have a single sponsor; Nissan Motor Co. purchased all the ad time during the episode, so while fewer ads ran, those that did appear were all from the automaker. A re-broadcast of the episode and the same commercial inventory ran Sept. 29.
Analyzing telecasts separately
Nielsen said NBC's action, while within the letter of the new rules, prompted a "significant amount of feedback from its clients in which concern was expressed regarding the consequences of this processing change." Nielsen clients told the firm that "it was essential for the ratings to the individual telecasts to remain available so that viewing to each telecast can be analyzed separately and to ensure there is no ratings gap in any time period."
Effective immediately, Nielsen said that if a "broadcast network re-airs the same episode then ratings for both the original and the repeat will be reported."
The ensuing brouhaha illustrates some of the troubles in measuring TV audiences who are able to use new technology to view programs in new and different ways. More viewers are using digital video recorders to watch their favorite programs hours or days after their original broadcast; downloading episodes from iTunes or Amazon; and watching streaming episodes of the programs online. Networks, recognizing that not all the fans of a show are able to watch it the night it originally airs, have begun to schedule encore episodes (often on Friday or Saturday nights) as a way to give more people a chance to see the episode. As this trend develops, the true total number of viewers of a particular episode comes not only from measuring a traditional TV audience.
Measuring all unduplicated viewers
Media outlets and advertisers believe a true measure of audience comes from looking at the total of unduplicated viewers who watch programs and ads across all the different media venues. But for a variety of reasons -- one of them being the obvious complexity of determining whether computer and download viewers watch TV programs in the same way couch potatoes do -- measurement systems are not yet ready to grapple with this task.
NBC is "happy to comply" with Nielsen's decision, said Alan Wurtzel, NBC Universal's president-research. Looking forward, he said, program measurements will have to evolve along with changes in viewer behavior. "People are taking advantage of long-form streaming video online, and we know people are taking the opportunity to see programs that are run again either on the same platform or on a different platform," said Mr. Wurtzel. "Any kind of attempt to reflect reality is something that we should all embrace."
While Nielsen has changed its rules, the company intends to continue pursuing new ways to measure TV programs. "With all the options available to report timeshifted viewing (via DVRs, On Demand, etc.) there is a need for increased flexibility in how linear programming is reported. As we pursue new ideas we will ensure that any new option is additive and that it be available to all clients," Nielsen said.