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The Collision of Television Codes

Video has really jumped the curb,'' said Nielsen Media Research chief technology officer Bob Luff. “It's not just a home or office phenomenon any more.''

Note the first word he uses. Video. The relevant term no longer is television. That's just a device now. Just one way to receive and view moving images. Now, of course, there are portable media players, iPods, cellphones and computers, with screens of all sizes.

“Jumping the curb” means the viewing is not tied to the home any more. College kids watch a fair amount of programming in dorm rooms. Business travelers have been known to take in a game, movie or both in hotel rooms or bars. Vacationers ditto. Commuters watch in trains and cars. And revelers, well, let's duly note that ESPN Zone restaurants have long affixed screens in strategic spots in the rest rooms.

Which makes Luff's job increasingly tough. He has to figure out how to capture all the data that will tell advertisers who's watching what, where, for how long and on what screen.

Diaries are not going to cut it. They probably never really did. Too much reliance on fallible human habit and recall.

Now, Luff is trying to get the device itself to handle the measurement. Or at least a device that is close to the screen being watched.

In the new world of audience measurement, the computer becomes a base station. You can embed a piece of software on the machine that watches how often a viewer goes to and watches something; whether an ad gets clicked on; whether a site like gets visited; and what video or text materials get watched.

The same approach can be employed on iPods. Sure, they're disconnected from a computer most of the time. But when a user synchs back up with the video and music listings on Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes software, there's a stream of information about what has been watched that can be employed in the service of ratings. Just let the software meter watch the bits fly by.

But as viewing gets more and more mobile, it gets a bit trickier. Nielsen ultimately is heading toward giving electronic tags to viewers. The tag becomes the diary, keeping track of exactly what the wearer views — at least from those ancient but still widely used devices known as TV sets.

You watch a show in a hotel, the tag will know. A bar? Ditto. At home? For sure.

The key is the unseen, unheard codes that Nielsen is placing on programming. The call sign of a station, an identification of a program and the hour, minute and second that is passing can be added to any show by an automatic encoder to the audio signals that are being broadcast; or the blank line in between frames of an image.

If the codes are on an audio signal, the tag will pick up on it wherever you are. But there's a problem in the air. Almost literally. Right now, Nielsen and one rival, Arbitron Inc., put codes on signals of Lifetime Entertainment Services' networks, according to Tim Brooks, executive vice president of research. But what if more competitors want to get into the ratings game? Companies like erinMedia, which thinks it has a better way of measuring viewer eyeballs than Nielsen has rolled out to date.

All the codes could collide. The conflict could disrupt signals, distracting viewers from shows. “We're nervous about it, as you can imagine,'' said Brooks, who has been on the steering committee of the Audience Measurement Initiative of the Advertising Research Foundation, which tries to improve advertising practices.

There are solutions, according to erinMedia president Frank Foster. For one thing, most viewership is still in the home. About half of U.S. homes are equipped with set-top boxes. Those boxes could capture precise viewing information. But cable and satellite operators have to be willing to turn those meters on.

In the meantime, there's a simple answer. Forget having four, five or six different versions of audio and video codes. Come up with one of each, that captures the pertinent information. And enforce its use on all programs.

The art and science of figuring out what video is being watched beyond what curb does not depend on unique codes.

It depends on what you do with the codes once you get them in hand.

One set of codes should serve all hands. Advertisers and programmers should demand it.