Dear diary: Time to close the book

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Nielsen, the reigning monopoly of U.S. TV ratings, finally is preparing to ditch the paper diary and bet entirely on technology to keep score on viewers. This took too long, but Nielsen deserves credit for proposing a comprehensive solution regardless of where or how consumers watch TV.

It's back to the future: Engineer Arthur Nielsen launched his ratings venture with technology in 1936 by purchasing rights to the Audimeter, a mechanical device to track radio listening. He began measuring the nascent TV market in 1950, adapting the Audimeter.

Audimeter measured household ratings, but how to track audience demographics? Nielsen in 1953 introduced a low-tech solution: ratings diaries. Paper diaries determined local ratings and ushered in the concept of local "sweeps" periods (a term originating when Nielsen mailed diaries starting in the East and sweeping across the nation).

Flash forward, and Nielsen Media Research today uses technology-people meters-to track ratings in the top 10 markets and a mix of set meters and diaries in 46 large and midsize markets.

Yet in 154 smaller markets representing 30% of TV households, Nielsen still relies on imprecise pencil-and-paper diaries. That's the bad news. The good news is that Nielsen this month announced it will replace paper diaries with electronic solutions-meters, possibly cable set-top box data and internet diaries-by 2011. A long wait, yes, but a good move.

More important is Nielsen's resolve for a holistic approach to TV viewership: Under its Anytime Anywhere Media Measurement initiative, Nielsen vows to develop and deploy technology to track viewership through any device-live TV, recorded DVR, internet, cellphone, iPod-at home or away.

We'll leave it to Nielsen to figure out the technology. What matters is that Nielsen delivers accurate, rich and timely data. Nielsen owns the currency of TV ratings, but with that comes responsibility to serve advertising buyers and sellers at a time when the medium has never been more in flux. The onus is on Nielsen to execute its ambitious plan.
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