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In the Age of Cord Cutting, Nielsen Plots Its Overhaul of TV’s Outdated Ad Metrics

Wants updated ratings criteria by next upfront

In less than a decade, TV viewing has migrated to a myriad of platforms.

It's been nine years since networks and advertisers agreed on the eligibility criteria for C3 and C7 TV ratings, but given the seismic shifts in the industry since then, it feels more like 90 years. In 2006, iPhones, tablets, OTT and connected TV devices like Roku didn't even exist; networks had just begun to experiment with streaming full episodes online (Hulu and Netflix streaming were still a year away); DVRs resided in less than 10 percent of homes; and YouTube, not yet owned by Google, was in its infancy. But in our modern world of streaming, time shifting and cord cutting, "more and more, those ratings are not resembling what is actually going on in terms of consumer exposure to those assets," said Megan Clarken, evp, global watch product leadership for Nielsen.

But not for long: Nielsen is trying to overhaul the industry's outdated ad metrics by next year's upfront. On Oct. 15, the company assembled 25 top execs—including network ad sales and buying chiefs—to start discussions about transitioning to a new set of criteria. Some attendees were surprised to learn that the current C3 and C7 definitions—which exclude any viewing where the ad load isn't identical to the linear telecast (i.e., almost any streaming), as well as all DVR and VOD viewing beyond the seventh day after it airs—are constrained not by Nielsen's technical capabilities, but by that 2006 industrywide agreement. "Nielsen can measure a lot more than they're given credit for, but the definition is what it is, so they're hamstrung by that, and we all have to go along with it," said David Campanelli, svp, director of national broadcast for Horizon Media.

Nielsen's efforts were prompted by its upcoming total audience measurement tool, which the company shared exclusively with Adweek last week. Two years in development, total audience measurement offers what networks and buyers have spent years asking for: the ability to account for a program's consumption across all platforms (including linear, DVR, VOD, OTT, mobile, tablets, PCs, digital publishers like YouTube and connected devices like Roku and Xbox), while aligning the disparate metrics for linear and video content. Nielsen will begin sharing data with its clients in December and roll out the tool's full capabilities early next year.


At last week's meeting, the company discussed "the next iteration of C3 and C7," said Clarken, as well as "a shift toward a complete change in the currency," a more complete overhaul of the current system, using Nielsen's total audience measurement. "It's important for us to understand how this thing is going to evolve over time, not just tomorrow but in future years," said Clarken.

Among the challenges in changing metrics: While program and commercial ratings were essentially identical for linear TV, those numbers diverge in a linear world where because of ad targeting, audiences for the same show are receiving different ads. "The needs of the network to prove success of a show and the need of an advertiser to deliver impressions start to be two different things," said Campanelli. "C3, C7 and C30 is a horizontal view of things, and I think we need to start looking at things more vertically, and how many total impressions across different formats can ABC deliver my advertiser on Wednesday night, rather than in the Modern Family spot across 30 days."

By mid-November, Nielsen will next bring together the researchers who routinely analyze the ratings data for the first meeting's attendees, before assembling both groups for a third meeting. Its goal is to have the new set of advertising criteria in place by the 2016 upfront, so that by the 2016-17 TV season, sellers and buyers will be making guarantees against the new metrics. Said Campanelli: "It's what we all have to drive toward."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 26 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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