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Nielsen Remakes Ratings for New TV World

Striving to keep pace with the explosion of ways consumers can get video, Nielsen Media plans to remake its ratings system into one that will capture viewers wherever they watch television, including PCs, ipods, cellphones, videogame players and other mobile devices.

In the most dramatic move for local TV stations, the plan calls for the elimination of the cheap but notoriously unreliable handwritten diaries in even the smallest markets within five years.

In a manifesto delivered to ad agencies, networks and broadcast stations Wednesday, Nielsen declares that it is committed to "follow the video" with an "all-electronic measurement system that will deliver integrated ratings for television viewing regardless of the platform on which it is consumed." The plan is dubbed "Anytime Anywhere Media Measurement" or A2/M2.

"The plan is to try to capture it all," says Nielsen Chief Research Officer Paul Donato in an interview. "We've got plans in there for everything."

Advertisers have increasingly pushed for better ways to track their return on ad investment as video gets repurposed, or originated, on an increasing number of platforms.

The plans will require Nielsen to surmount huge challenges both in developing new technology and ensuring that the data from the new systems are sound. Recent changes to the measurement of local TV stations provoked complaints and controversy from broadcasters whose Nielsen scores dropped, though some also saw boosts as well.

Nielsen has already had some expansion plans underway including measuring some out-of-home viewing.

But other elements are new and some are extremely ambitious.

One new – and relatively simple – element calls for the creation by year's end of a "panel" of 400 video iPod users to track what programs they download and watch.

A more aggressive move calls for the merging of TV and 'net numbers by integrating Nielsen's TV data with that of its 62%-owned Nielsen/NetRatings unit. Initially, the move will better measure the relation between conventional TV viewing and web surfing.

This summer, Nielsen will “fuse” the data from the separate TV and Internet panels. But next year, Nielsen homes will get meters on both their TVs and their PCs, so their broadcast, cable and online viewing habits can be tracked precisely. The company says the goal is to allow advertisers “to optimize combined TV/Internet campaigns.”

Another move seeks a comprehensive view of online video being delivered by major Web companies.

NetRatings will also work with Web companies subscribing to its SiteCensus product and begin tracking the viewing of video that they deliver. Web companies will embed special triggers in video so that when it is either streamed or downloaded, it will silently "ping" Netratings servers.

Portable devices are a major challenge because there are hundreds of different potential devices and no standard software.

Nielsen is developing small devices that would work with Bluetooth or even wired headphones. The devices would compare sound accompanying video to a library of “audio signatures” to figure out what users are watching.

In the most significant move for broadcasters, Nielsen declared that it will eliminate handwritten diaries in all local TV markets, converting even the smallest cities to some sort of electronic device to gather viewing data.

For years Nielsen has recruited viewers to write down every program they watch, with the resulting fallibility factor. In small markets, the inexpensive diaries are the only way audiences are tracked.

But even in markets large enough to support the cost of Nielsen meters, the diaries are used to estimate the demographic makeup of a show's audience, Nielsen is already working to eliminate diaries in the 10 largest markets, rolling out the same "people meters" used for national ratings, devices measuring both what is being watched and who is in the room watching it.

Some stations and all cable systems are clamoring for local people meters (LPMs), but they sparked controversy when some stations complained their audiences had decreased under tests of the diary system.

Nielsen had said it would eventually get local people meters (LPMs) in the top 20 markets. Now, however, Nielsen says it will extend LPMs to the top 25 markets (from New York to Indianapolis).

In many mid-sized and all small markets, there's not enough ad spending for stations and agencies to justify the expensive people meter system.

In markets 25-60 (San Diego to Richmond, Va.) that currently get only set-top meters (which can’t tell who’s actually watching TV) and diaries, Nielsen plans to deploy a new version of its active/passive meter.

The new meter isn’t actually wired to TV sets, cable boxes or tuners. It listens for codes embedded in the audio of TV programming. The devices will be “people meters" offering demographic data, requiring members of Nielsen homes to punch a button signaling that they’re watching TV. Pending testing, Nielsen hopes to deploy the new meter in 2008.

In markets 61 through 125 (Tulsa, Okla. through Monterey, Calif.), Nielsen plans to test simple “mailable” meters. Members of Nielsen homes would put the device near their TV sets for a month and mail it back to the company, where it would download the data.

The plan for the remaining markets to 210, (Glendive, Mont.) is more fuzzy. One tack is to work with cable and satellite companies to use data from their digital set-tops, which are capable of tracking every channel change, but offer no audience demographics. At the least, the company hopes to switch from handwritten diaries to ones filled out over the Internet.