Technology set to change the TV ratings game

Web downloads and mobile access are changing things

Ask a random group of people, say at the supermarket, which season of Lost they are watching and chances are quite a few of them will reply they are watching season three, even though TVNZ hasn’t started showing it yet.

The word on the street is that Bit-torrent file-sharing is becoming more common. A quick search on the internet shows that more than 200,000 people have downloaded Lost season three in the last six days, and that many other popular TV shows are available for downloading.

The way people choose to watch TV shows is changing, which makes it difficult for research and rating companies to keep up. By using traditional “People Meter” methodology, companies like Nielsen Media Research fall short of measuring what people watch on handheld devices or PCs streaming network TV shows.

Computerworld talked to Nielsen Netratings and TV3 and neither was concerned about the growing unmeasurable viewership, because they think it is still a very small part of the total TV audience.

However, media commentator and former Computerworld online editor Russell Brown says that “the market for alternative and — for the moment — illicit means of obtaining TV programmes might be relatively small, but it is growing.

“In the longer term, people live in a real-time world on the internet, and they don’t want to wait six months to see a series they can read about on blogs and fansites today,” he says. “At some point the traditional broadcast rights system will have to change to respond to consumer demand.”

This might involve conventional broadcast rights becoming cheaper, due to the fact that a portion of the local audience is already paying to download the programmes soon after the US broadcast, or it may be that local broadcasters will also buy the right to distribute programmes digitally within their coverage area, says Brown.

Nielsen in the US seems to have understood that a big change is coming. The company has come up with new ways to collect data about what, when and how people are watching TV shows, according to a recent article in Network World US.

For example, the company has worked with TV broadcasters to invent two new technologies: psychoacoustic encoding and passive signatures. These recognise when a show is playing by picking up signals hidden in the audio, says the Network World article.

Psychoacoustic encoding injects a digital time-stamp and programme title — an active signature — into the audio tracks of TV shows as they are broadcast, while passive signatures mean that a split-second sample of audio is digitised and can be recognised by metering equipment.

Globally, Nielsen Media Research is now working together with its sister company Nielsen Netratings to measure things such as streaming downloads, says Mark Ottaway, managing director of Nielsen Netratings in New Zealand.

He says that it is becoming increasingly important to be able to find out whether the audience is viewing a show when it is broadcast on TV or whether people have downloaded it and are watching it on another device.

But New Zealand is a long way away from adopting the new measuring technologies, he says.

“[The trial] in the US is a world beater,” he says. “Our technologies are certainly adaptable to [measuring alternative TV viewership] but to bring it up to the level in the US involves quite a big project and it’s going to take quite some time before we see anything like that in New Zealand.”

He says that the company will be interested in adopting the new technologies in the future, but New Zealand is lagging behind the rest of the world.

Top-rated programmes like Prison Break and Desperate Housewives are downloaded regularly in the US, but Ottaway reckons there isn’t much of that going on in New Zealand yet.

“That probably relates to the time and cost [of downloading] because of our broadband situation,” he says. “As [broadband penetration] develops we expect the local market to follow on.”

Nielsen Netratings in New Zealand can measure streaming to a degree, says Ottaway, but with nowhere near the sophistication and accuracy of the new technologies used in the US. While the local company can measure downloaded video clips from websites, it can’t measure things like how much time users spend downloading TV shows, or if, when and how often users view the shows, and on what devices.

Currently, Nielsen Netratings New Zealand relies on surveys to find out that kind of information, says Ottaway.

For TV3, measuring viewership of downloaded shows is not a significant issue, says spokesman Roger Beaumont.

“Downloading [shows] and playing them on devices is extremely minimal when compared to the mass audiences that [broadcasting] reaches,” he says.

He compares the situation with the concerns when video recorders first became commonplace in homes, and there was no way of measuring what people recorded and watched at a later time.

“This is just one of many technology factors that can enhance the viewing experience, but, by far and above, the lion’s share of viewing is going to be on the broadcast.”

However, Nielsen US has more plans for the future. Next year, Nielsen research participants will carry a gadget called the Go Meter with them throughout the day, says Network World. The device searches for the psychoacoustic codes embedded in TV programmes, and logs and stores recognised signatures in flash memory.

Another device due out next year is the Solo Meter, which is about the size of a triple-A battery and sits between the earphone jack and the headphone jack on a device, for example a video iPod. The Solo Meter stores only the audio signatures that are identified in flash memory, says the article.

Nielsen has also developed software that runs on smart phones and which will deliver data on what the user is watching directly to Nielsen’s datacentre over the mobile network.

In addition, for measuring streamed shows on the internet, Nielsen has developed a software agent that could be downloaded onto Nielsen ratings participants’ PCs and would report to Nielsen the streamed network TV content watched on that PC, says the article.

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