Why the New Nielsen Ratings Might Be Viewers' Biggest Hope

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We have all watched a favorite show get the axe seemingly because of poor Nielsen ratings. It sucks, especially when as a viewer, you feel powerless. You can turn every TV in your house—heck, every TV in your neighborhood—to Nikita or Community, but if none of those households are participants in Nielsen’s data collection (and chances are they aren’t, considering the current number of Nielsen families is around 25,000 to 30,000, or about .02 percent of the country). There’s literally nothing you can do but find these rare, unicorn-like Nielsen families and convince them to turn on the TV—and even then, there’s no guarantee that those people would correctly report the experience.

It’s a flawed, damn-near-broken system. And it’s not just frustrated viewers who recognize that. In recent years, various media entities have called for alternatives. The Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement is a group led by a number of global conglomerates like NBC Universal, News Corp, Viacom, Disney, Microsoft, and Unilever. CIMM formed in 2009 and has pursued a Nielsen alternative ever since; yet, here we are three years later. When the biggest transnational companies in the world can’t make something happen, it’s troubling.

The Real Issue: Reporting

But even though the Nielsen methodology (small representative samples, the still-present use of journaling) is a major point of contention for viewers and for factions like CIMM, the biggest issue for us at home is in the reporting of the Nielsen figures and really all viewership data. In a perfect world, we would all be better served if the media—including us here at TV.com—just stopped reporting the ratings all together or at least stopped reporting them as a be-all-end-all. But we need some relative measure of success to discuss, and until the industry itself stops relying so much on the Nielsens, we’re going to report on them.

However, there are some sites on the web that try to claim that certain ratings or data points can categorically prove a show’s success, not to mention its renewal or cancellation chances, as if networks in the 21st century consider nothing else when making scheduling decisions.

That sort of reporting and logic is unbelievably flawed, but it makes sense that it’s come to be taken as gospel because there’s so much data that we as viewers don’t have. The networks have so much more information than we do. They know exactly how many people are legally watching shows online, no matter the web site. They might even have a decent idea of how many people are watching illegally as well. They also know who’s clicking what link, following what Twitter or Facebook accounts, listening to what podcast, etc. You can best believe that in 2012, when network execs decide to renew or cancel a show they don’t just look at the 18-49 demographic rating, nor do they likely have a target number in that demo (or others) that a show must hit to survive. It’s not 2.0 or bust.

Therefore, while the networks and studios are actually much more meticulous about these processes than we might want to believe, the frustrating part is that we just don’t get to see those processes. They aren’t required to reveal that proprietary information, so over the last few years, as ratings have gone down and online streaming/illegal downloading as gone up, we’ve all been in a holding pattern.

Until now... sort of.

Earlier this month, Nielsen announced that after a multi-month trial with some of the world’s biggest online content providers—including ESPN, Facebook, and Hulu—it is going to start reporting online video viewership numbers. These ratings, known as the Cross-Platform Campaign Ratings, will aim to provide “comparable metrics across TV and digital, measuring unique audience on each, along with overlapping audience and total combined unique audience.” This should give content producers, providers, and advertisers a better idea not only of who's watching what and when they're watching it (data that was surely somewhat available to them before; it’s not like ESPN had no idea who's been using their WatchESPN app or streaming services) but more importantly, Nielsen will at some point publicly detail this information to consumers as well. As far as I can tell, Nielsen hasn’t said when the information will be publicly available, but if there are data points collected by an “unbiased” third party (instead of internally) that networks and advertisers can use to promote themselves or their excellence, they’re going to do so.

How This Impacts You

For viewers, this news means that certain beloved shows could have a better chance of staying on the air. So many series gain a substantial amount of viewers in the Plus-7 DVR numbers, imagine how their ratings could improve with streams from the same week added in. This is also a sizable step in knowing the stakes in the multi-screen environment. Much like with the current television ratings, we’ll eventually learn what kind of online views are normal or abnormal (good or bad).

Perhaps most importantly and interestingly, this theoretically gives viewers a better chance to directly impact whether or not a show lives or dies. Right now, it’s slightly unclear whether or not Nielsen is going to monitor every video streamed on a web site where “television” content appears or if they’re going to go with some sort of representative model like they do on television. However, it is still quite likely that audiences will be able to impact the number of views of both shows and advertisements because once advertisers know the degree to which consumers are engaging with their promotional materials, they’ll be willing to put more money online, which will only spur the networks to put more content online to make sure their Cross-Platform ratings are high.

Meaning, right now, fans often push others to watch a show on Hulu or Netflix when it’s on the cancellation bubble, but they don’t actually know what kind of impact that has (other than “it has an impact”). But if these new ratings develop in the way that they should and the way that so many bigwigs in the industry want them to, fans might actually know with certainly that their streaming of an episode of Parks and Recreation actually helps it get another season.

Armed with that knowledge, television viewers could have a lot more power. Recall Chuck fans going to Subway to buy $5 footlongs in that show’s name. They went directly to the advertiser and legitimately shaped Chuck’s lifespan. With these ratings in place and the advertisers on-board, viewers could just as easily enact a campaign not unlike what Chuck fans did. Like, for example:

“Oh, Buick, I see that you’re running ads every time I watch Upscale NBC Comedy X. Well, to make you realize how important the show is to me, I’m going to actively click on your ad each time it plays and I’m going to encourage fellow viewers to do the same. Now you have real evidence that proves people are engaging with your ads (and maybe the product itself), so perhaps you’d be willing to give NBC and Hulu more money in the name of the show and its fans?”

Chances are, the networks and the advertisers are always going to keep certain data private. Now there’s an active third party involved. So while this is just one admittedly optimistic example of what could happen in this new reality of online viewership measurement—and while that reality might still be a little ways away—the big point is that it is now on-track to happen. It’s no longer just a pipe dream. So although the Nielsen ratings might be a big thorn in viewers’ sides, this new form of them might be their biggest hope.

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