The media ratings service Nielsen made two humongo moves recently that acknowledge video viewing is migrating away from live television. On Wednesday, it announced it would no longer track how many TV channels the typical U.S. consumer receives, because as MediaPost reports, “there no longer is a ‘consistent’ meaning for the term ‘channel.’ “
But the real story is this: Nielsen has also decided to change the very nature of television ratings by including “duplicate” viewing — as in, you watch a TV show tonight, and then you watch it again by playing it back on a DVR. This may sound like a nuance, but it is a huge shift in the concept of a media audience delivered. Advertising impressions have always been perceived as mutually exclusive. A newspaper with 100,000 circulation is assumed to reach 100,000 different sets of eyeballs. Broadcast is fuzzier, of course — a 100 GRP schedule could reach 100% of the viewing population once, or 1% of that population 100 times — but at the micro level of a single commercial airing, each audience has been assumed to be unique.
No more. A critic might suspect this move is Nielsen’s way of bolstering the broadcast industry, by boosting ratings numbers as audiences start to slide elsewhere. Magazine and newspaper publishers have tried similar gamesmanship with their BS “readership” malarkey; back in 2007, for instance, Essence magazine claimed its 1.07 million printed copies reached 7.8 million readers thanks to the magic of “passalong readership.” (“Look, honey, Essence magazine came in the mail — let’s hold a party and invite all our friends!”) Is Nielsen gaming the system by adding in numbers beyond the “live audience” to now include duplicates as well? Perhaps. Either way, the real challenge for advertisers is Nielsen provides no way to determine if any of that downstream DVR audience skips over commercials entirely.