Nielsen taps into TiVo info

Nielsen Research and TiVo have set up 20 households with personal video recorders to get a sense of how the devices change viewing habits. The results will then be shared with Nielsen clients to begin the arduous task of figuring out how ratings will reflect households that are time-shifting left and right.

The measuring might not be so tough. It's what to do with the results. For example, households with VCRs are counted by Nielsen when a program is recorded, because there is no way to know when the program is played back. But PVRs allow Nielsen to know when the program is recorded and then when it is viewed. And that creates the challenge for the industry.

"We need agreement from the industry about how they want the data reported," says Jack Loftus, Nielsen's spokesman. "Do they want it in the syndication report? In the overnights? Do they want it in a separate report? Right now, they're not sure, and that's why we have these test panels.

"The industry needs to learn as much as it can as early as it can," he says, "so we can make an intelligent decision about how we want the data reported."

Only 80 of Nielsen's 30,000 households have a PVR device, and those households are currently bypassed for ratings.

TiVo and Nielsen's new tests instead start with a test bed of 10 homes that have been given TiVos and 10 current TiVo owners so that Nielsen can see how viewing habits change with the devices in the home. The two companies began working on the project in August 2000.

The result is software that, for now, is usable only with the TiVo PVR. Nielsen is working with other PVR manufacturers to adapt it for their systems as well.

Susan Whiting, Nielsen Media Research president and CEO, said in a memo to clients that TiVo has downloaded the necessary software to its subscribers but the data will be retrieved only from sample households that give permission. She added that the goal is to fully credit PVR and other time-shifting usage by integrating the data into Nielsen's syndicated reports. There is no timetable for when that would happen.

"For the near term," she said, "we will continue to exclude households with PVR devices from our metered samples."

The other challenge for Nielsen is to integrate the information needed into existing data, and that requires creating new systems. Right now, the emphasis will be on learning the viewing habits of homes with TiVo, not gathering ratings. Nielsen wants to know how much recording is done and how much time shifting is done. That data will be shared with Nielsen clients later this fall. "Once the industry learns more," Loftus says, "it can make a more rational decision on how that data should be reported."