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TiVo Bungles Ratings Reports

Your TiVo is a bit like Big Brother—a nice and helpful Big Brother—tracking everything you record, everything you watch, every commercial you skip. But sometimes TiVo forgets, and that has frustrated Nielsen Media Research and TV executives yearning to understand exactly how wide use of digital video recorders might disrupt the advertising business.

Nielsen has been working with TiVo for months to authoritatively report DVR users’ viewing behavior, but perfecting the process has taken far longer than anyone expected. Ad executives last week outlined one snag that has slowed the pace. TiVos already regularly phone home to report what shows are recorded, etc., when they update their on-screen guides. So the companies created a “panel” composed of 10,000 homes. TiVo was gathering the data and delivering it to Nielsen—with demographics but no identifying information—for processing.

The problem: Some TiVo models didn’t allocate enough capacity to hold viewing data. Heavy users who generate a lot of keystrokes would fill up the data cache, prompting their TiVo box to start deleting older data that hadn’t yet been uploaded. TiVo, then, was delivering incomplete information to Nielsen. And, of course, it’s the heavy DVR users who could be the most disturbing to TV networks’ advertising model, so their habits are of particular interest.

Nielsen had been providing preliminary TiVo research to networks but suspended operations. “We had to rebuild the panel from scratch,” says a Nielsen spokeswoman. The historical data it had already processed is now unreliable. TiVo readily fixed the technical glitch last month.

The research chief for one cable network says he’s looking forward to Nielsen and TiVo’s getting back on track. “I haven’t seen a report out of them in months.”