Brace Yourself For the Post-Diary TV World

There’s a change coming this summer to the ratings of most TV stations, the biggest change in 50 years. Call it the Bonfire of the Diaries.

Beginning this summer, Nielsen will replace its traditional paper diary samples with data derived from electronic measurement based on thousands of households in each of its 140 local diary markets.

The preliminary ratings are already out there, and when the real ratings hit the computer screens of Nielsen clients, who knows what will hit the fan.

The re-engineered ratings methodology marries electronic measurement of set tuning with statistical algorithms of viewing based on audience demographics from separate TV households, most of them from out of market.

And adding to the “Franken-ratings” nature of this big data mash-up is that the electronic measurement will include two separate sources: return path data from cable and satellite sets and a sample from over-the-air sets using Nielsen’s low-cost “Code Reader” meter.

Before addressing the bumps ahead, let’s consider some of the expected upsides to the change.

Most important, there should be less variability or “random bounce” in the ratings quarter to quarter. Return path data drawn from a census of thousands of homes are inherently more stable than data from a sample of hundreds. This should translate to improved predictability of future ratings and a lower cost of makegood guarantees.

Second, we will see fewer occasions of “zero cells” in which there is evidence of set tuning but no person viewing, a tough sale to an advertiser.

Third, ratings will be continuous — 12 months a year, not one month per quarter.

Another advantage, at least for those stations prepared to seize the opportunity, is that improved data can mean improved programming, audience promotion and sales strategies.

Due to differences of methodology between diary and electronic measurement (the former is known to favor top stations) and due to different households being measured (regression to the mean), we expect to see overall relative declines of the market leader and increases for lesser ranked stations. Of course, specific markets and stations will vary from this trend

Research staffs have been flooded with more and more data in recent years to the point that many are just treading water. And many stations in smaller markets have never been adequately staffed.

Understanding and carefully analyzing the new the preliminary data between now and the summer conversion will be a challenge. Discontinuity, disruption and uncertainty abound.

To help make the ride a little less bumpy, here are some suggested steps to help manage the data change.

Learn Precisely From Nielsen What New Data To Expect 

In what form will the data arrive? When is it promised? What are the specs? What are the sources of return path data in your market? What is the viewer assignment and in what form will the data arrive? When is it promised? What are the specs? What are the sources of return path data in your market? What is the viewer assignment algorithm and how does it apply to unique market programming.

Create A Data Transition Plan

Work closely with your Nielsen rep and your IT support to be ready to conduct analyses and to forecast future audiences with large amounts of data due to continuous measurement. Remember, the transition is a process, not one single point of change.

Systematically Inspect The Impact Data Report When It Arrives

Check for internal validity, identify anomalies, compare to historic diary station ranks and compare to other sources (comScore). Don’t presume the data is accurately vetted and free from error before you receive it. Kick the tires.

Uncover Usage Patterns In The New Data 

How do electronic measurement and viewer assignment affect traditional daypart, genre and demographics? To distinguish the signal from the statistical noise, know that return path data is not a random sample and does not follow familiar laws of standard error.

Assess Liabilities Of Makegoods Across A Range Of Ratings Outcomes

Once the new method becomes currency, inventory is potentially at risk. Many sales guarantees may already be in place using the “old” rating points, not the “new.” Prepare for contingencies and track carefully.

Insist On Transparency From Nielsen 

Do not hesitate to take your questions to Nielsen. Get active on industry committees which are addressing the change. In 2010 the Media Rating Council withheld its accreditation of data coming from diaries. Work to ensure that the new standard rises to the level of MRC accreditation.

Be Prepared To Respond To Ratings Shifts More Quickly In The Future

Electronic data, aside from differences in measurement, will change the pace of the process. Data will flow back to the station monthly, not quarterly.

Lots to do. And know the marketplace favors the player who is prepared.

One final note. Remember that actual viewing itself will not be affected by the measurement change, only Nielsen’s estimates of viewing.

Originally published by TV News Check