No one watches TV, Nielsen, and you know it

Scraping social media doesn't work either

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The light's on, but is anyone home?

But still these services offer something better than Nielsen, simply because of the 20 rule. The 20 rule is that every person under the age of 20 in any particular US house leaves a TV on, when they leave a room. It is also the N+1 principle. In any given US home, however many people there are in the home at a given point, this many TVs are left turned on, plus one. Nielsen has our sympathy in trying to accurately measure this. Its people meters ask people to turn on the meter when they enter a room and switch it off when they leave, but young viewers will wander between programmes and rooms incessantly and when asked say: Yes, they watched both programmes, in both rooms.

Because of young people's ability to multi-task, they may even be able to supply the plot of two TV programmes they viewed at one time, with some accuracy. They will however, have no recall of the adverts, because that‘s when they turned to their tablets and laptops and Facebooked.

So this kind of obviates ALL of this social media research, and yet it does clearly have a place, and as we said earlier, measuring the social babble on a programme, is a measure of engagement in its own right – the more people write about a programme, the better for likely future engagement. Kids think: "I‘d better watch and or catch up with this programmeme, or else I won‘t have anything to say to everyone else and they will all tell me the plot."

Another problem the TWC paper points out is that the methodology of each supplier is different and for the most part secret so that others won‘t copy its approach. That makes for a real weakness when advertisers want to compare like with like. So they end up doing something insanely stupid: they compare these new social systems with Nielsen. So that‘s comparing a system which measures just one thing – who watches for how long – with an engagement measure (who or how many people comment about this programme).

If the Nielsen measure supports the social media measure, they figure it‘s safe to use, which is the exact opposite of what they should be doing. Some people have figured it out, says the paper, and they use the social metrics to distinguish between two programmes that have the same Nielsen measurement. The one that people talk about more is the one where the advertising should be more expensive.

But of course there are two huge underlying problems with this. Firstly certain segments, age and sex are invisible in social media entirely, and others are over-represented. So while 60-year-olds still respond to adverts, and are less likely to have DVRs, they rarely have millions of friends on Facebook. So it is true that 14 per cent of the population creates 85 per cent of consumer-generated online content and while males make up just 47 per cent of people online, they make up 57 per cent of the population of sites talking about TV programmes, so they skew the data.

This is perhaps why no one gives their methodology, because it will be inordinately complex if it tries to unravel that skew.

What might be interesting is to look at other ways to measure engagement which may soon become available to us. Broadcasters and pay TV operators have apps, either "viewing apps" or "companion apps". If we assume that the great majority of TV content these days is viewed while doing something else with a companion device (in the US this is definitely true, with the same starting to happen elsewhere), then if both the TV and the companion device are focused on the same TV programme, that might be considered 100 per cent of engagement.

If they watch TV and comment on it simultaneously on a social media site, then that too is 100 per cent of engagement. We would never know which people were commenting on which programmes, but a correlation between the amount of social commentary done in real time plus viewing figures, might get us there.

But apps which listen to your screen, recognise a TV programme and then offer you companion data for that programme, could also be the primary form of audience viewing collection (except for those irresponsible teenagers who leave their tablet in one room listening to the TV, while doing their homework in front of another TV in another).

Of course the reach of tablets needs to become almost universal, something we cannot count on until at least a five-year time frame. Another area that might be fruitful is the search and recommendation elements that are gradually being put into pay TV systems, which will come to fruition over a similar period.

If a system holds recommendations for an individual, then those programmes are more likely to get viewed. Combine this with metrics on how many programmes are watched all the way through, which in many cases came from the recommendation process in the first place or from a recorded search process, and if that data was amalgamated, it would form the backbone of what "will" be watched in the coming days.

There is the problem that the method of finding a programme, using an EPG, or zapping or search, changes your attitude to the programme, and that in turn may make audiences more or less engaged. If it takes you hours to find a programme and you come in halfway through, that may lead to less engagement, for instance.

Combine all of this with underlying demographics on the household and that could form the basis for advertising placements based on programmes that are going to attract big audiences, but which may not all be watched at the same time, but which will have a high level of engagement, due to the high levels of calculated interest. Anyway, that would be in the future, when the EPG is fully replaced by search and recommendation platforms.

Facebook + new partner = next Nielsen?

But for now we feel that the social media side of this is a no-brainer and whatever the system of choice in a few years, it will need to have a social media element. So how about this?

Facebook needs to partner with someone, perhaps Nielsen, perhaps a newcomer, to make available all the TV commentary which is buried in Facebook and perhaps do this in partnership with Twitter, and provide one definitive social media "buzz" factor to augment traditional audience measurement.

Actually if Facebook could simply leverage aggregated social media commentary in all walks of life, it could probably double its revenue without showing a single advert of its own. So that would be comments about movies, but also comments about other brands, music, devices, etc...

Whichever way we end up going, this will be a slow process. Until Nielsen produces its own social measure (something it has had a stab at), it will undermine any other social media offerings out there in order to continue its hegemony and also because there are two issues here.

First coming up with a better audience measure metric which can be safely collected, and Second getting the acceptance of the advertising industry – these two are not the same thing, one lagging the other by a good few years.

Companies like Optimedia have come up with its Content Power Ratings, and these are supposed to be derived from a combination of data sources, including social media. Nielsen worked with the Sundance Channel (says the paper) to develop what it calls its Measurement Innovation Metric, which also captures a television audience‘s loyalty, engagement and ad receptivity.

So already the paper argues there is a two tier system. No-one is content to stay purely with eyeball counts any longer, so there is progress. But similarly a token introduction of social media by the same audience partners everyone is used to, could highjack any genuine change in how audiences are measured.

Finally Addressable advertising, where it is possible, has the power to change all that. Putting adverts into programmes in real time, to the right people who are known to have an interest in a subject, who have the wherewithal to afford the advertised product and who are watching TV now, and perhaps even watching a programme on a similar subject, leverages advertising appeal by multiple dimensions.

So, you have to measure by demographic, region and proven interest, and if anyone sets up such a system, they have already moved beyond engagement metrics, and we note that many pay TV operators have already begun to move down the addressable advertising route, although its acceptance among advertising agencies is almost zero at this point.

Copyright © 2012, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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