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The television-viewing habits of 330,000 Charter Communications homes in Southern California will be tracked second by second, through a partnership between the cable operator and The Nielsen Co.

The viewing patterns will be captured in digital set-top boxes and the data forwarded to Nielsen Media Research to create reports on the performance of local and national ads and all channels in the Charter system.

Nielsen will market the reports to ad agencies and advertisers, with Charter earning a cut from their sale. The partners declined to state the financial details of their arrangement.

The move was made as precise viewership data becomes a point of competition.

Advertisers are demanding more specific information from TV programmers to match the type of click-stream data available on Internet advertising, said Charter senior vice president of advertising sales Jim Heneghan. Satellite-TV provider DirecTV is launching a 100,000-home panel, providing second-by-second data, in conjunction with New York-based research firm TNS Media Intelligence.

Charter has had a “similar commercial relationship” with TNS for more than a year. That arrangement monitored viewing in the Riverside County, Calif., territory until last April, when the monitoring program was expanded to Charter's operations elsewhere in Southern California, Heneghan said.

The monitoring with Nielsen will involve customers throughout the same area. It's intended to provide advertisers with two sources of viewership data.

Charter's largest system is in Long Beach, but the sample will include systems from Ventura, Los Angeles and Riverside counties. The pact covers 330,000 homes, but those residences contain 420,000 digital set-top boxes, noted Heneghan. The monitor reports will not tally use of video-on-demand or digital video recorders, he said.

Through the TNS venture, Charter has already learned that there is not a huge viewing drop-off during commercial breaks. (“That was a big aha for me,” Heneghan said).

Charter is collecting viewership information on networks that are currently unrated, said Heneghan. It can also generate cumulative viewership numbers on standard- and high-definition telecasts of the same show, he added.

Data is collected via Navic Networks software embedded in the Scientific Atlanta set-top boxes deployed in the market. Charter can retrieve the information and forward it to Nielsen within 24 to 36 hours, said Heneghan.

“Most clients don't need it that fast,” he said, adding that advertisers use the information to look for viewership patterns. Nielsen will use software filters to eliminate events which could skew the data, such as viewership patterns that indicated the cable box was left on when the TV was turned off for the night.

The information provided to Nielsen will not have any personally identifiable information in it, according to the partners.

Some programmers have been agitating for more and different viewership sampling techniques.

“We have the biggest advertising market in the U.S., yet we don't have the most sophisticated measurement techniques,” said The Weather Channel Media Solutions executive vice president and general manager Paul Iaffaldano. “How many marketing executives are talking about [return on investment] and are asked to be more accountable? This could provide the linkage between advertising and ROI.”

Charter would like to expand the monitoring program this year, but other Charter-dominant markets, such as St. Louis, use Motorola set-tops that don't use Navic software. Heneghan said he hoped to resolve that engineering dilemma.

Separately, Motorola last said week it's invested an undisclosed sum in Invidi Technologies, another developer of targeted TV-advertising technology.