Nielsen Plans to Expand Ratings From TV to Broadband Views

New Measures Could Offer Hope as Network Audiences Decline

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Consumers don't just watch TV on television sets, and now, Nielsen is preparing to measure TV-watching beyond the obvious boob-tube.

The company has disclosed plans to start measuring consumer views of TV programs that are watched via a broadband connection in the home -- a development sure to be praised by broadcast-TV networks that have taken it on the chin in the ratings department this season.

"Over the last 12 months, Nielsen has explored expanding the current definition of a TV household to more accurately reflect media consumption and technology advancements. Nielsen also conducted research into homes that did not fit the current definition," explained Pat McDonough, senior VP-insights and analysis at Nielsen, in a prepared statement. "We found that many of these homes still had TVs but were using a broadband source to view content."

As a result, said Ms. McDonough, Nielsen will begin "in effect including any home with a TV that can receive video via an external source" in its measures.

As more consumers start to use tablets, mobile devices and video-streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu to sample new video content, TV programmers have howled, because traditional Nielsen ratings do not include many of these new behaviors. The effect has been diminished ratings that, in turn, hurt the networks' chances to secure higher ad rates from sponsors and make it easier for new video players -- YouTube and others among them -- to step in to woo ad dollars to their emerging digital realms.

Season-to-date, viewership among audiences aged 18 to 49 as of February 17 are down 13.4% at ABC; 4.1% at CBS; 26.8% at Fox; and 6.2% at NBC, according to data from Barclays. Adding TV-show views made such emerging services as Aereo or Xbox would be a boon to these outlets and the big media companies that own them.

TV networks have made efforts of their own to win their numbers back. A number of cable and broadcast outlets are now including views of video-on-demand selections in the schedules they put together to distribute clients' ads. And many top network executives are pushing for "C7," or the inclusion of views of commercials made as many as seven days after the airing of a certain program. At present, the standard is three days' worth of views, but many TV exectuives suggest the measure is no longer fair, since viewers , now accustomed to having any TV episode they want available at the push of a button or the setting of a DVR, will wait more than three days to watch a favorite program.

Nielsen's maneuver won't solve all of Big TV's measurement issues. The new plans won't encompass tablets like the iPad. Nor will they do anything to measure the viewing of ad-free content on Netflix (primarily used to watch past seasons of TV programs).

What's more, in the recent past, Nielsen has required commercial loads in new digital streams to mirror those that accompanied the programs on TV. In other words, if the commercial breaks that accompany a program view on Hulu or don't match the ones that supported a new airing of an episode of "New Girl" on Fox or "Scandal" on ABC, Nielsen is not able at present to devise a unified rating of all those views. Nielsen's effort is likely to be just one among many aimed at determining the entire audience for an old-school TV program in a new era.

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