Research Companies Dig Deeper Into Set-Top TV Ratings Data

Five years ago, mining set-top-box data to glean TV ratings was a glimmer in the eye of media researchers. Today, it’s on the verge of becoming part of the TV currency, perhaps even replacing it. Set-top-box (STB) data gives researchers, many at last week’s Advertising Research Foundation conference, heart palpitations. Imagine: near-census-size samples that dwarf the 18,000 household panel that forms the basis of Nielsen’s national TV ratings.

For would-be competitors to Nielsen, that’s an attractive business opportunity. At least five companies are pursuing measurement ser-vices based on cable STB data. But all—Nielsen, Rentrak, TRA, TNS Media Research and TiVo—have different spins on how the research should be developed and used.

Plenty of issues surround its implementation that need to be addressed by media research firms before STB services become part of any buyer-seller dialogue. Nielsen, whose TV ratings serve as the reigning currency (and which owns Mediaweek), knows the pitfalls all too well even as it explores development. “How will you validate the data? [30 percent] of set-top boxes are never off. Size alone doesn’t guarantee validity. Ratings vary by cable platform,” said Manish Bhatia, Nielsen’s president of advanced digital services, ticking off some challenges. “We need to be careful and not be disabused by the amount of data and the size of the sample.”

Nielsen, which can combine STB data with purchase data from its ACNielsen Homescan consumer panel, believes STB data can’t stand alone as a currency. “Panel data adds points that are missing. The question is how do we build an integrated solution?” Bhatia asked.

But TNS Media Research and others believe it’s time to switch gears and evolve beyond panels. “We will come to grips with the issues. When we solve them, I don’t see any reason why it won’t become the currency,” said George Shababb, president, TNSMR.

TRA, which combines STB data with product purchase data, takes a slightly different position. “We’re not trying to displace [TV ratings], we’re going to co-exist,” said Bill Harvey, president and co-founder of TRA. Of the five, only TRA may be used in the upfront, as part of MediaVest’s negotiations.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle yet is research firms’ access to STB data from cable and satellite systems, which will want something in return. “In the long run, it will take a collaborative effort,” said Rentrak chief researcher Bruce Goerlich. “It might take longer, but it will happen. The mine shaft will be drilled, and gold will come out.”