5 Ways Television Changed Dramatically in 2014

For ratings, reality TV and streaming, it was a wild year

Television advertising has been a pretty conservative marketplace: You buy Nielsen ratings, you make 30-second advertisements and sometimes you buy product placement.

But the sudden ascent of non-Nielsen-rated content has created a gaping void in the measurement world. And popular genres like horror, with shows such as The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and American Horror Story, aren't super friendly to adjacencies and product placement. Who wants to see consecutive bites taken out of a leg and a cheeseburger? (Game of Thrones, of course, isn't even ad-supported).

So here are a few ways the industry is changing, and what it means for 2015.

1. Ratings went crazy.

What happened?

The measurement world's lack of visibility into the mobile and tablet spaces generated shrugs until fairly recently.

It's become spectacularly—maybe horribly—easy to spy on computer users' surfing habits (no, "incognito mode" does not hide you from anybody except your mom). But your cell phone and your iPad are still difficult to track, mostly because in-browser viewing isn't the norm. Video apps like Hulu are much harder to track with cookies because you aren't in your browser. And that's where a huge, valuable chunk of viewing takes place.

So Nielsen (which suffered a serious black eye at the beginning of the season by spilling coffee on the keyboard or something on a bunch of its Live+SD figures, resulting in some major corrections) is racing to make its gross ratings point tool, the one advertisers pay for in non-theoretical money, the standard across not just linear cable and broadcast, but new media, as well. It's not there yet, partly because there's still significant dispute over whether or not an ad delivered on a smartphone is worth the same amount of money as an ad delivered on a 50-inch plasma screen.

Where does that leave us?

In flux. Nielsen competitor ComScore is trying hard to create a product that will loosen Nielsen's grip on TV ratings, but that's a nearly impossible task. The question is less whether Nielsen's TV ratings will go away than whether traditional linear cable agreements will eventually go away and Nielsen's ratings system will become obsolete. If it does, it will take several years, and by that time there may be new solutions. And new problems, of course.

2. Reality TV lost its mojo.

What happened?

Various things: On broadcast, people just got sick of American Idol, and then Utopia, the show Fox hoped desperately would replace it, turned out to be a Coke II-level bad idea and ended up canceled before Christmas. There are still reality shows that do OK on broadcast, of course, but everything not called MasterChef Jr. is down. And most reality programs, including NBC's flagship, The Voice, are down double digits.

On cable it's much, much worse. This summer, which is traditionally the time for cable programming to shine, the biggest and baddest of the reality networks were down by huge numbers: History was off 24 percent, A&E was down by 30 percent, Discovery was off by 15. The reality networks, with a few exceptions (Discovery's all-murder-all-the-time network ID among the main ones), are underperforming. So one of the best ways to get your brand seen—integrated ads on reality TV—is losing traction. NBCU shut down G4, but rebranding Style as Esquire has seen the network do worse, if anything (it's down by 25 percent for Q3). Again: This isn't a marketing failure. The whole cable landscape is changing. But reality is the canary in the coal mine.

Where does that leave us?

Likely with fewer networks on the dial in the next couple of years. There's just too much that's too similar on TV, and the wars of attrition with cable operators mean all packages just aren't going to contain all channels anymore. They can't afford to.

The industry has long pretended the rise of Netflix just means viewers prefer their content on demand; another way of looking at it is that they probably also prefer reruns of Murder, She Wrote and Star Trek: The Next Generation to deadening tragedy about pawn shops and neglectful parenting.

3. Data brokers came out of the shadows.

What happened?