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Nielsen Wants To Know a Lot More About PVRs

As it prepares to measure TV-viewing patterns in the digital age, Nielsen entered into an agreement last week with a company—Ucentric Systems—that has developed software that links multiple TV sets in a household to a single personal video recording (PVR) device.

Viewing patterns of consumers with PVRs, such as TiVo, are among the least understood by TV researchers but are among the more worrisome because PVR users have the potential to easily zap commercials.

So far, however, it's unclear to what extent viewers avail themselves of that capability because Nielsen doesn't report such data.

But it plans to. In fact, under an existing agreement with TiVo, Nielsen is putting in place two panels of people-metered PVR households. The research firm hopes to able to start collecting data and issuing reports to clients within several months.

PVR penetration is still small—about 2 million homes today.

TiVo, one of the major players in the field, says it has sold 500,000 units and is selling them at an average rate of 15,000 per month. Replay, a TiVo competitor, has a deal to put PVR technology in households that subscribe to EchoStar, although the DBS provider doesn't release its figures either.

The agreement with Ucentric will enable Nielsen to take PVR measurement a step further and address issues like to what extent people record programs on one TV and play those programs back on a second set in the home.

"The real challenge," says Nielsen's Jack Loftus, "is to be able to incorporate that PVR data as part of our syndicated research services," which include daily and weekly ratings reports for national network television, cable TV and local TV. So far, said Loftus, there is no timetable, but, in the short term, a likely interim step will be the issuance of separate PVR viewing reports.

How PVR viewing data gets incorporated into existing reports will depend in part on client feedback.

For example, if a PVR records an episode of ER
one week but the viewer watches it two weeks later at 2 a.m., what week and what time period get credit for the viewing?

Should there be a separate PVR viewing category, or should the viewing just be lumped in with whatever program is being played back? Such issues are currently being discussed by members of a Nielsen advisory committee made up of clients at networks, stations and ad agencies.

"The first step is to develop the software that enables our meter to talk to TV sets with PVRs so we know what's going on," says Loftus. "The second step is incorporating the data in the way we process it now, and the third step is agreeing to the rules of the road."

Not surprisingly, doing all that is going to cost a lot of money. "It means a significant change in the way we process our data. It basically means redesigning the plant for incorporating a whole new data stream. It's a lot of work, and it will be a lot more expensive to do that."