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Nielsen TV Measurement: Simplified

Written by: Michael LaSardo | February 27, 2019

If it existed, Nielsen’s Facebook profile status under Local Measurement Relationship would read:

“It’s Complicated”  Let try to un-complicate things here. 

Currently, there are 208 Designated Market Areas (DMAs) measured and reported by Nielsen.  Let’s simplify this into 4 main market types:  25 Local People Meter, 31 Set Meter, 15 Code Reader and 137 Return Path Data Plus.  

Local People Meter (LPM) measurement represents 50% of U.S. TV Households

LPMs are used in 25 of the 26 largest DMAs.  While there is no perfect form of TV measurement, Nielsen would consider this to be their “gold standard.”  Sample homes have a meter directly connected to all TVs in the HH.  Members of the HH are assigned a button and periodically engage with the meter while watching TV.  It allows Nielsen to report HH and demographic viewing on an overnight basis, 365 days a year. 

So, why haven’t LPMs been rolled out for all markets?  For starters, this type of measurement can be expensive, therefore it’s not simply cost effective.

Nielsen also uses HH Metering.  These meters are like the LPM but they fail to measure “who” in the house is watching.  HH Meters come in 2 forms: Set Meter and Code Reader.  Set Meters are connected to all TVs in a sample home, while, Code Readers are placed near TVs in a sample home and pick up an inaudible signal from the TV. 

Set Meters, in 31 mid-to-large markets, represent 21% of U.S. TV HHs. 

Code Readers, in 15 markets of varying size, represent 5.5% of U.S. TV HHs. 

Set Meters and Code Readers are only capable of measuring HH viewership.  Age and gender demographics are estimated using Viewer Assignment.  Don’t worry, I’ll get to this!  Set Meter markets report HH viewership on an overnight basis.  Demos are only reported monthly and are available approximately 3 weeks after a survey ends, for both market types.  Nielsen does offer the ability to access HHs for Code Readers and demos for both market types sooner, for an added subscription.  

The last measurement technique, Return Path Data Plus (RPD+), was introduced into currency with the July’18 sweep measurement period.  It’s a replacement for diary measurement and now allows Nielsen to report 12 surveys a year as opposed to 4 surveys.

Return Path Data+ (RPD+), used in 137 mostly smaller markets, represents about 23% of the U.S. TV HHs. 

RPD+ measurement relies heavily on Nielsen partnerships with DirecTV, DISH and Charter Cable to collect set-top-box data.  Code Readers make up the “+” in RPD+ and are installed in these markets to capture over-the-air viewing missed by set-top-boxes.  Nielsen does some cleaning and modeling to the set-top-box data.  Just like the Set Meter and Code Reader markets, demos are estimated using Viewer Assignment.   HH and demos are available approximately 6 weeks after a survey ends.  The delay in demo availability compared to Metered markets has to do with Nielsen’s reliance on its partnership for set-top-box data.    

Ok, I promised…Viewer Assignment.  Simply put, it’s a probability technique to determine who is most likely watching TV in the HH based on regional people meter data.  Set Meters, Code Readers and Return Path Data homes are only capable of reporting HH viewership.  Nielsen knows who is in their sample and takes a best guess on who is watching.  Remember, this is “simply put”; there is way more to that approach than we can get into here. 

Together, all 4 measurement types allow Nielsen to report age/gender viewership monthly for 208 DMAs.  Local television measurement is a fluid situation and what’s mentioned today will most certainly change soon. 

It’s been a long time coming, but Nielsen is now in the process of overhauling all their local tv measurement. 

  • Portable People Meters, new set-top-box partners, integration of RPD in remaining markets, and Nano meters are all on Nielsen’s horizon for 2019 and beyond.

Adjustments to measurement can vary in size and scope.  Nielsen releases impact or parallel books to give the industry a look at how the new measurement compares to the old measurement.  When Nielsen retired diaries and introduced RPD+ the new measurement brought higher viewing levels in virtually every market.   Katz’s analysis of the change also showed local shifts in hourly viewing from one measurement to the other. 

Next up for Nielsen? 

  • PPM integration in LPM and select Set-Meter markets.
  • RPD+ integration in Code Reader and select Set-Meter markets.
  • Announce a realistic currency start date.

Next up for the industry?

  • Do a better job of analyzing impact or parallel data to better estimate audience deliveries within the new measurement.
  • Keep your measurement antenna pointed upright so that we can all prepare and plan for changes early.

Programming content is widely available on multiple platforms, requiring Nielsen to evolve to a more dynamic form of measurement.  The recent retirement of diaries was drastic because it was a complete change in methodology.   Upcoming integration of PPMs and RPDs are expected to alter the landscape but not to be as tumultuous.   Introduction of Nano meters has the potential to capture full viewership across devices.  It will also allow for Nielsen to measure demographics in Set Meter markets without a reliance on Viewer Assignment. 

In fact, this week, Nielsen announced that Nano meters will begin replacing existing meters as they come out of sample in 14 Code Reader markets.   The first market to experience this will be Paducah starting April 4, 2019.  We don’t expect the Nano meter rollout to cause major disruption, as the deployment will take place over a long period.   It will function as a HH meter, just like the Code Reader, but with more advanced capabilities.

Local media metrics have long lived in the shadow of national media.  The complexity of Nielsen’s rollout of changes has caused short-term disruption in the local media buying process.  The long-term potential for more stable measurement throughout the year, in all markets, will make the struggle worthwhile.   This will help to bring local media much closer to national media in terms of measurement. 

Stay tuned.  It’s complicated.

Screenshot 2019-02-27 14.53.17

Michael LaSardo is Vice President of Katz Television's Station Solutions team, the team responsible for driving positioning solutions for Katz Media Group’s 4000+ Radio and TV station partners nationwide. Michael began his local television research career in 2001 as Research Analyst at Millennium Sales & Marketing, a division of Katz Television Group. Since then he’s held positions of elevated responsibility, including Senior Research Analyst, Research Manager & Research Director. In 2014, he was named VP TV Station Solutions of Katz Television Group. As the group’s name suggests, TV Station Solutions tracks down solutions to a cornucopia of questions and issues on behalf of station clients, sellers and agencies. Michael leads the team in development of positioning pieces, presentations or reports as well as a variety of specialty analysis’. Michael is also a member of the Media Ratings Council.