Television networks always want a clearer picture of American consumers — when they're watching television, where they are online and what they care about. The Nielsen Company, long the arbiter of television audience ratings, has started tracking viewership online, but the networks are dissatisfied with the company's methods for TV and aren't convinced that Nielsen will be able to track audience numbers elsewhere. They're ready to go it alone. 

As of this week, the major networks, together with some large advertisers and media agencies, are announcing plans to create their own measurement system.

Will that work? Probably not. But it can't hurt.

The intense measurability of online behvavior has taught us that increased measurement is a good thing. But finding the right data isn't easy.

As television viewership fragments, getting a complete picture of consumers' online and offline habits becomes more important. But getting accurate data across categories has proven elusive.

Sam Armando, senior vice president of audience analysis for Starcom MediaVest, tells the Financial Times: "The most deficient thing is there's no single source measurement. The thing is not, 'Let's go out to replace Nielsen.' [However] it's not a leap of faith to think that another [measurement company] can come in and do both."

Among the parties involved in this new venture are News Corp., NBC Universal, CBS, Discovery and Disney. Advertisers like Procter & Gamble, Unilever and AT&T, as well as media agencies GroupM and Starcom MediaVest are also taking part.

Leaving audience measurement to the people buying and selling advertising is going to be problematic. And getting all of those companies to agree on metrics will be a feat in itself. While the networks often think Nielsen undercounts viewership, advertisers hold the opposite opinion. When it comes time to make advertising purchase decisions, these new findings are likely to have even less support than Nielsen data.

Which is what happened the last time a group tried to revolt from Nielsen ratings. In the mid-90s, major broadcast networks, together with a few cable networks, advertisers and ad agencies, started the SMART initiative (Systems for Measuring and Reporting Television). But without major consensus on its ratings, the consortium went nowhere.

That said, relying on one company for audience data is problematic. Currently, ComScore is working on a product to measure television and online audiences. Magid Abraham, CEO of ComScore, tells AdAge that his company is trying to create a "diagnostic tool that would say 'these are the pieces I'm missing, this is the audience duplication I see and here's the incremental reach I get by using one channel vs. a combination of channels.'"

Sam Armando, senior vice president of audience analysis at Starcom Mediavest tells the Financial Times: "The most deficient thing is there's no single source measurement [for TV and digital video]."

Nielsen isn't commenting on this new initiative, but in October 2008 the company launched its TV/Internet Convergence panel, which measures viewing of about 2,800 consumers across both platforms, but  they won't have a nationally representative sample with that product until 2011.

The Financial Times reports that the consortium would like to award contracts to researchers by the fourth quarter of this year. But it will be difficult for a new group to get the kind of scale neccessary for proper measurement. According to Variety:

"Insiders close to the situation stress that there is no practical way for the partners to develop the massive infrastructure needed to replicate the data that Nielsen delivers through its vast networks of data collection sources."

Meghan Keane

Published 14 August, 2009 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

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