There are a lot of details that have yet to be reported, but this is big: according to The Hollywood Reporter, Nielsen, the company that measures the ratings of television shows, is reportedly planning a significant shift in its ratings measurement system that will capture data about television viewing not simply through broadcast, but through streaming.
By September 2013, when the next TV season begins, Nielsen expects to have in place new hardware and software tools in the nearly 23,000 TV homes it samples. Those measurement systems will capture viewership not just from the 75 percent of homes that rely on cable, satellite and over the air broadcasts but also viewing via devices that deliver video from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, from so-called over-the-top services and from TV enabled game systems like the X-Box and PlayStation.
While some use of iPads and other tablets that receive broadband in the home will be included in the first phase of measurement improvements, a second phase is envisioned to include such devices in a more comprehensive fashion. The second phase is envisioned to roll out on a slower timetable, according to sources, will the overall goal to attempt to capture video viewing of any kind from any source.
The details here will be important. Will Nielsen measure viewing on Hulu, the streaming service set up by the networks? And if so, will it be capturing that data through user’s devices, or through reporting from Hulu? Will the pool of people who are measured be adjusted to account for people who don’t have televisions but watch substantial amounts of television through subscription services on devices? How will Nielsen measure clips of news shows embedded in network sites like MSNBC’s versus streams of full shows? What time period will streaming ratings cover? Will the ratings be adjusted based on a three-day viewing period, the way viewing from DVR recordings are now? Or will both streaming and DVR watching over the seven days after an initial broadcast count? That’s something that CBS president and CEO Les Moonves has been pushing for, and in a November earnings call said “we think it will happen in a short time.”
But that change is happening at all is exciting and overdue. The CW has been claiming for years that streaming viewing has kept its low-rated shows financially viable, and I have to wonder if a marvelous show like the Canadian import The L.A. Complex might have been able to get a third season if advertisers were presented with quality multi-platform viewing numbers that made visible an audience they weren’t seeing in the overnight ratings. FX’s John Landgraf has long called for reformed ratings system that would both reflect new viewing behaviors, which makes sense given the bump a new show like The Americans has seen in three-day DVR ratings, and give broadcast and cable channels a sense of how they stack up to original programming from outlets like Netflix and Amazon. As The Hollywood Reporter explains, that will depend on Netflix and Amazon: “Nielsen will capture how much time is spent on that kind of viewing, but to actually provide ratings, Netflix would have to agree to encode its program signals so that Nielsen software can identify them and trace their source. The traditional TV networks do encode their signals to be compatible with Nielsen’s measurement tools.” And so far, Netflix at least seems very reluctant to play a network ratings game, though it’s released some data about the performance of House of Cards.
If nothing else, though, these changes will let us measure which proportions of the iceberg of television viewership are visible above-water in Nielsen’s traditional ratings, and which are below the surface in the previously unmeasured streaming audience. That’s the starting point for a conversation about how to keep content we care about alive, even if it comes too late to, say, save Dan Harmon’s vision of Community.