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MBPT Spotlight: Numbers Game: Cross-Platform Audience Measurement: It’s About Time

In December, Nielsen released their cross-platform report for third-quarter 2013. This Nielsen report always gets a lot of attention because the topic of cross-platform media use is central to the future of our industry and Nielsen is a trusted source in media research. The big headline for this third-quarter “Year in Review” report is that, “The average American consumes almost 60 hours of content each week across TV, Radio, Online and Mobile” or just under 9 hours a day—an important insight for sure.

This edition of the report also includes a look at media consumption for various platforms and, to its credit, Nielsen focuses on time spent with each platform (usage) rather than just users. This is important because it is the combination of users (the number of different people that use a platform) and the time they spend with it that creates an estimate of audience. And audience is what drives impressions for advertising. In fact, a “rating”—also known as average audience—represents the “rate” of usage for media content and is the product of reach and time.

Time is typically the most sensitive and variable aspect of media use and probably the hardest metric to capture across different platforms in a precise, standardized way. As media use evolves and fragments over many platforms, time measurement will be critical to solving the cross-platform measurement challenge. It is also a key component for measuring engagement. We are often misled by articles touting surveys that indicate the largest numbers of people “ever” doing something—while the fact is they may not spend much time doing it at all.

One reason for the 60-hour figure is that this is the first Nielsen cross-platform report to include radio measurement—made possible through Nielsen’s recent acquisition of Arbitron. To introduce the inclusion of radio, the report opens up with a significant insight that we as an industry either take for granted or ignore: More than 90% of Americans listen to (AM/FM) radio each week. In fact, TV is the only other media platform that can make a similar claim. Reach (or users) is only one dimension of media consumption, and Nielsen does go on to report time spent with each media platform. There again, radio is second only to TV in terms of usage, averaging 14 hours per week versus 35.1 hours for TV. The combination of TV and radio, according to Nielsen, represents 82% of the time spent with the media platforms measured in this report, the balance being almost 11 hours spent consuming display content and video on computers, watching video on mobile phones and using a game console or DVD player.

I commend Nielsen on providing as complete a measure of multiplatform users and usage as they can. They are crystal clear about the limitations of the report in terms of platforms measured and the mix of methodologies used. For example, the mobile video data is based on survey results and display content is not measured for mobile phones. Tablet usage is not available and neither is usage on over-the-top devices such as Apple TV or Roku. Many of us know from our own analytics that the user base on these devices is growing and the minutes consumed can be considerable. This means that the 60-hour figure is incomplete—there are more usage minutes to be captured. For me, the biggest insight from this report is that we need more and better measurement. It’s about time.

Artie Bulgrin is ESPN’s senior VP, global research & analytics. He is a former chairman of the Media Ratings Council (MRC) and the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF). He remains a board member of both the MRC and ARF and serves on the executive committee of CIMM (the Coalition for Innovation in Media Measurement).