NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- How many people really watch "Heroes" or "Damages" or "Gossip Girl" from week to week -- or see the commercials they run? The answer has become more difficult to divine in recent years as online viewership has grown, but Nielsen is taking one step towards trying to solve the problem.
The media-measurement concern intends to start making data available in September that takes online viewing of a TV program and merges it with standard TV-audience data resulting in a "single combined national television rating," according to a letter sent to clients today from Sara Erichson, president–media client services, North America, at Nielsen.
The data will be made available for evaluation starting this September and is intended to become the basis for ad negotiations in February 2011, according to the letter.
Nielsen's move spotlights the massive changes taking place in the TV business, which desperately wants to show that more people watch its programming than those captured in Nielsen's current measures. At present, advertisers pay based solely on the number of viewers who see commercials during a particular show as many as three days after the program airs. That measure, known as "C3," and created to take into account the growing number of viewers playing back programs on digital video recorders, was introduced in 2007.
But technology is fast making that measure obsolete. Consumers now also have any number of digital-viewing options available to them, ranging from Google's YouTube to Hulu, the video site owned in party by NBC Universal, News Corp. and Walt Disney, and various TV-network run websites.
Nielsen's maneuver now takes place even as large group of advertisers, media conglomerates and ad-buying firms have joined together to create a system to measure viewers across TV, the web and mobile screens. In doing so, the group could end up competing with Nielsen or helping the media-ratings company tweak its methods.
Nielsen said its new reporting will include online views of programs that have the same program and national commercial content that aired on TV. That could leave many online viewing occasions not covered by the new measure. Hulu and ABC.com, for example, do not run the same ads or the same amount of ad inventory that is used in a traditional airing of a TV program.
Indeed, the new combined measure may only cover a "very small percentage of the online viewing," said Ira Berger, director-network broadcasting at independent agency Richards Group.
Media buyers wary
One ad-buying executive expressed some initial wariness of the development. The cost of reaching one thousand viewers, a standard measure in advertising negotiations, is very different online than it is for TV, said Jason Kanefsky, senior VP-director of national broadcast at Havas's MPG. As such, creating a blended measure of the audience may not be a solution advertisers will want to use to determine pricing, he suggested.
Nielsen said it intended to create a "small client committee to work with us on defining, in more precise terms, what online program and national commercial viewing qualifies for combined reporting as well as to work through editing and crediting rules."
TV networks have for months pressed for data that shows the broader audiences that watch their shows -- not only those that watch at a specific time and date that once represented the totality of TVn viewership. Broadcast networks have been particularly vocal about the fact that DVR use often creates an audience for their shows that is significantly larger than that measured by "C3" data.
NBC Universal has, for example, created its own "Total Audience Measurement Index" that takes into account viewers from TV, online and through various devices. NBC has also researched how individual viewers watch such events as the Summer Olympics across panoply of different media devices.