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TV ratings getting smarter

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HOLLYWOOD -- Times change. But they also stay the same.

That, essentially, was the message being offered this week by executives from Nielsen, the research organization responsible for compiling and distributing audience-measurement statistics that make up the TV ratings and determine the rates networks charge for ads during their programs.

It was the first time Nielsen officials have made an appearance here at the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles, and the purpose of their early-morning briefing was to "demystify" some of the complex processes used to measure TV-watchers' viewing habits and to offer some insights into how the data-collection agency is updating its techniques to include cross-platform content consumption -- watching shows on devices other than traditional TV sets -- in its ratings information.

Cheryl Idell, Nielsen's executive vice-president of client solutions, told members of the Television Critics Association who attended the briefing that beginning this fall, Nielsen's TV ratings information will include viewership on smartphones, tablets and other hand-held devices.

But in explaining some of the new strategies for audience measurement, Idell was quick to point out that traditional TV viewing remains, by a vast margin, the most popular way for people to watch their favourite programs. Adults (over 18) watch an average of five hours and 10 minutes of live TV per day, a figure that has remained virtually unchanged since 2012 despite the huge advances in mobile-device technology and increased use of hand-held devices during that time.

Nielsen's latest report on cross-platform viewing in the U.S. seems to support the commonly held perception that younger people are more likely to consume content in new and different ways. Seniors (aged 65 and older) watch the most TV in the traditional, live-as-it-airs fashion, viewing an average of just over 52 hours per week. Adults 50 to 64 are next, averaging 45:18 of live TV, while those in the 35-to-49 bracket watch 34:23 of live TV per week.

The numbers continue to decline for adults 25 to 34 (27:35) and 18 to 24 (21:49).

When it comes to time-shifted TV viewing -- watching programs on PVRs or other recording devices -- adults aged 50 to 64 are the heaviest consumers, viewing an average of four hours and 17 minutes per week.

It's the younger demographics that are most likely to view "TV" programming on non-traditional screens -- those in the 18-to-24 bracket spend nearly two and a half hours weekly watching video on the Internet and around 25 minutes watching video on smartphones.

Nielsen has developed technology to accurately measure these various forms of viewership by embedding audience-meter software in mobile devices and apps, and this fall its TV ratings will begin to reflect viewership across all platforms. Clients of the ratings service will be provided with traditional TV-ratings information as well as "extended-screen" stats that will include viewing on TV sets, computers and mobile devices.

According to Idell, the new numbers will help advertisers target their messages to specific audiences and specific devices, shifting from the current "linear ad" model that provides one ad to many people to a "dynamic ad" model that distributes many different ads to many different consumers.

What Nielsen's newly inclusive numbers will not reflect, however, is viewership of programs on Netflix, the increasingly popular content-distribution service whose original-content roster includes House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and the revived version of Arrested Development. According to Nielsen executives, Netflix has been offered the opportunity to take part in these audiences measurements but has opted not to participate.

Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 10, 2014 C6

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