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Nielsen Will Track Web Viewing, But Will It Make Much of a Difference?

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Every television viewer knows the words “low ratings” are the death knell for series. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a critically acclaimed sitcom about a son trying to keep his insane family together, or a beloved Western in space, low ratings mean your favorite show is not long for this world.

But increasingly, the Nielsen ratings, the most sacred numerology in Hollywood (next to Oscar ballot-counting, of course), are starting to seem out of date. That’s because more and more people consume television time-shifted from its original broadcast. You most likely didn’t watch the last episode of Supernatural when it actually aired. Instead, you probably viewed it on Hulu, possibly through an XBox, through a DVR device or even on your WiFi-enabled TV.

Nielsen has tracked time-shifted viewing on DVRs for some time now, but last week the company announced it will now track viewing over broadband. The Hollywood buzz is that this is a step in the right direction, but for those of us who love quirky, frequently overlooked shows, will this new tracking help save those series from getting the ax? Yes and no. First of all, Nielsen won’t be able to track which shows families are viewing, just the quantity of TV content streaming over broadcast. Additionally, tracking for iPads isn’t set to roll out until the end of this year.

Industry analysts have pointed out that compared to the number of people who watch on an actual television, web viewing is a drop in the bucket. According to AdWeek, non-TV views account for less than 1 percent of all total views of television content. In short, Nielsen is not going to suddenly discover that more people are watching Community than American Idol on Thursdays. And, in the short term, there won’t be enough of a change in the numbers to prompt different behavior for advertisers.

In the long term, however, Nielsen is going to need to take even bigger steps to account for the way people watch TV. Remember, Nielsen ratings come from about 23,000 “Nielsen families” who are tracked throughout the year for their viewing habits. But, as the broadcast landscape becomes more and more fractured, does it make sense to compare a big reality show like Idol to a tiny niche show like Community? There is more content than ever before on screen and online — but overall viewership, according to Nielsen, has been dropping. It may be there is more value in advertising to loyal niche viewers online than there is in trying to figure out which generically appealing show is going to get millions of families to sit on the couch on any given night.

Nielsen also doesn’t account for shows that only exist online. This includes Netflix’s House of Cards, but arguably should include the foreign imports from Korea and the U.K. that run on Hulu, or even popular web series that appear on YouTube (like The Guild). While these types of shows are not major players for an advertiser like Pepsi or Ford – their ratings might have value to niche advertisers, and they certainly have value to fans.

In the nearly 80 years that the Nielsen company has been tracking broadcast content, this shift to tracking internet content may be the toughest yet. Web content is an ever-shifting target, and Nielsen needs to catch up fast.


  • Alex

    I don’t watch much TV content on the web. Mainly old clips of shows on Youtube. The only other stuff is  stuff like comic reviews or other crazy stuff on Youtube. Much of television I watch are DVDs of old TV shows. I don’t think sitting in front of a computer or even holding an mobile device is good for TV watching. People have a lot of things to do and television was mainly meant that they don’t have to be interactive. Just watch the thing. That’s just the way I see it.

  • mjkbk

    Non-TV views may account for only 1% of total views–but what demographic does that 1% represent?  Why, the very demo advertisers positively slaver over, 20-something guys in particular.  And that 1% may very well be increasing at an accelerated rate each year.  Why do you think Nielsen agreed to start tracking it?

  • darthtigris

    The problem is the sample size.  The television landscape, as well as how people consume it, is far too diverse for such a narrow sample size to properly reflect what people are actually into.  They need to add at least 2 zeros at the end.

  • Wildstorm

    They should also consider being able to sample from what people watch on their DVRs.  I work at night and watch everything in the morning. 

  • Andy E. Nystrom

    Actually they do. The third paragraph above notes that.I think this is a good idea because over time more and more people will be shifting to watching online (between DVDs/blu-rays and online sources like YouTube and official network sites, it’s pretty easy to watch what you want cheaply and at your leisure, and without paying for stations you don’t want). So it’s a good idea for the long term.