Lockdowns force Nielsen to accelerate new technology to hang on to TV-ratings panelists
TV ratings have soared amid coronavirus quarantines, but those same quarantines are making it harder for Nielsen to maintain the 45,000-household panel behind those ratings. It raises questions about how long Nielsen ratings can keep the accreditation from the Media Rating Council (MRC) that lets them serve as currency in most TV deals, but it’s also accelerating long-contemplated improvements in how Nielsen measures TV viewing.
Historically, Nielsen has needed a constant stream of new panelists to replace people who quit, age out of demographics or are removed automatically after two years to maintain data quality. Onboarding new panelists traditionally has involved home visits to conduct surveys and install metering equipment—visits now largely forbidden by stay-at-home orders around the country.
For now, Nielsen’s TV ratings are in no imminent danger of losing accreditation, but MRC CEO George Ivie says the organization has shifted the focus of its auditors to the workarounds being employed by Nielsen and other research providers that historically relied on face-to-face visits as part of their methodologies.
‘It’s somewhat impressive’
The MRC committee that oversees Nielsen ratings heard from executives for three hours in April and, Ivie says, evidence so far indicates that workarounds Nielsen has put in place are working.
“Before I learned about all these measures they’ve taken, I would have said ‘If this thing goes on until June we’re going to have a problem,’” Ivie says. “Now I’m not so sure. They appear to have put in measures that elongate their ability to keep some households up that otherwise would have fallen out of the process. It’s somewhat impressive what they’ve done.”
Those workarounds include temporarily suspending the two-year term limit for panelists, providing increased financial incentives to retain participants, accelerating the rollout of newer “Nano” meters that can more readily be installed and fixed remotely, and otherwise reworking the onboarding process to allow remote surveys and self-service installation, according to Nielsen executives.
Ultimately, Nielsen might increase the mix of Portable People Meters (now used for radio and some local TV ratings) in its TV ratings collection and find more ways to incorporate passively collected “return-path data” from set-top cable boxes into TV audience measurement.
Nielsen began scenario planning around pandemic responses in late January, says Mainak Mazumdar, chief data and research officer of Nielsen. In some ways, it resembles the drill Nielsen does to maintain or restore validity of local ratings after hurricanes.
Nielsen call centers are “doing a good job of being creative about how we maintain the panel by troubleshooting any issues we may have in metering in a remote manner,” says Scott Brown, general manager and head of TV and audio products for Nielsen. Panel size and participation are “outperforming our most optimistic scenarios,” he says.
Part of being creative is getting people not to leave. One way is by temporarily waiving the rule that panelists get kicked out after two years—a rule intended to maintain data quality. But the far bigger source of attrition is people who just don’t want to keep participating, Ivie says.
Some of that comes from people moving, which has slowed, Mazumdar says. To keep other people from quitting, Nielsen is paying more to get them to stay. Not everyone gets the same incentives. Nielsen has an algorithm to measure what demographics it needs the most and pays accordingly, he says.
Nielsen already has been using return-path data from set-top cable boxes to gather or supplement data for TV and digital ratings, and might lean on that more heavily, Mazumdar says.
An end to house calls?
One of the bigger changes might be accelerating the use of more modern meters. Since 2016, Nielsen has been rolling out its so-called Nano meters, which are smaller, cheaper, faster to install, easier for panelists to use and operate wirelessly on a cloud-based infrastructure. Now, it’s accelerating rollout of this and other technology, CEO David Kenny said on a May 1 earnings conference call, implementing plans, he said, “most of which were planned over the next three years, but many of which got implemented in the past two months.”
This is happening not just in the U.S. but also other countries such as Sweden, Kenny said. “We are absolutely seeing that we can recruit a panelist digitally, mail them meters, get validation that all their devices are connected, and they’re up and going totally by self-start.”
While just maintaining current panel size is the immediate challenge, new metering technology also makes it easier and more cost-effective to build bigger panels in the future, Kenny said, which could allow for more precise measurement of the increasingly fragmented TV and streaming media market.
Meanwhile, not being able to visit homes doesn’t affect TV measurement by rival Comscore, since its methodology relies on passive collection of set-top box viewing data across millions of households. CEO Bill Livek sees the pandemic pointing out advantages of “contactless” data collection.
“Our feeling always was that someone who will write a survey out or allow someone into your house, you’re basically getting an unusual human being to respond, who either needs the money or wants to actively participate,” Livek says. “The point is that it doesn’t accurately reflect the market.”
Livek believes one lasting impact of COVID-19 is that “we as human beings are going to have a hard time allowing people into our houses for a while. We’re conscious of germs like we’ve never been before.”