Nielsen Exec: Don’t Expect to Be Impressed by Impact of Mobile TV Ratings

Starts tracking viewing on devices

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Nielsen has declared itself "open for business" in terms of tracking TV viewing on smartphones, tablets and other electronic gadgets. But don’t expect those numbers, which will be available for the first time with the new fall broadcast season, to be impressive, statistically speaking.

"It will start small and build gradually," Cheryl Idell, Nielsen’s evp of U.S. media, said at the semi-annual Television Critics Association conference kickoff in Beverly Hills. “We won’t see dramatic changes in ratings with this data added in.”

That may not be the big splash the advertising community has been hoping for.

Claire Browne, vp, director of media research at ad agency RPA in Los Angeles, described Nielsen as "behind the curve" and "playing catch-up" on measuring mobile viewing, a project that’s been in the works for years. "They have to do this to remain relevant," she said. "Consumer behavior is running so far ahead of the research."

Nielsen first announced the long-gestating service last fall, promising TV networks a better cross-platform gauge of total viewers so they can set their ad rates accordingly. Advertisers are also clamoring for the data so they can strike the best media buying deals and keep up with the on-the-go consumer who’s increasingly turning to mobile devices for entertainment. 

The mobile data will come via software meters that have been embedded into media companies’ "watch anywhere" apps, Internet browsers and mobile devices themselves, Idell said.

Those meters will identify pieces of content—an episode of Scandal or American Idol, for instance—and report back on when and how those were watched, whether through a smartphone, iPad video app or other device. Privacy encryption will reveal demographic but not personal tidbits about the viewer, who may opt out of the research.

Nielsen will add the mobile viewing data to a TV show’s overall ratings to give a more accurate picture of how many people across the U.S. watched an episode of The Walking Dead or a season of CSI. That applies only to mobile viewers, though, who watched the same version that aired on TV, the so-called linear version of the show that contained the same embedded advertising. That’s the same criteria that Nielsen uses for counting time-shifted viewing three or seven days after initial airing. (Ad-free streaming services like Netflix will not be included nor will platforms like Hulu where ads are different than on TV).

It’s a start, RPA’s Browne said, because "usage numbers are critical," but she wishes Nielsen, either alone or in collaboration with other services, would step it up. "We all want credible data, and it’ll be disappointing if this doesn’t turn out to be it," she said.

@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.