The company that invented TV audience measurement is partnering with Adobe to tackle one of the thorniest problems of the digital age for broadcasters and video content creators: How do you measure and monetize TV ratings on a tablet?

Nielsen and Adobe announced a strategic alliance this week that's designed to deliver what the companies describe as "the industry’s first comprehensive, cross-platform system for measuring online TV, video and other digital content across the web and apps." 

The collaboration integrates Nielsen’s digital audience measurement products with Adobe's digital analytics and online TV delivery platforms. Through the arrangement, the two companies will jointly market Nielsen's Digital Content Ratings, Powered by Adobe, to deliver analytics and content metrics that "enable smarter buying and selling decisions," Nielsen boasted in a statement.

Data from the new service will be available in the Adobe Marketing Cloud, providing brands a way to use the data to optimize their marketing campaigns.

What's it All About?

The idea is to give video content creators, advertisers and media companies of all kinds comparable metrics to measure audiences accurately and consistently across every major IP device, including desktops, smartphones, tablets, game consoles and over-the-top (OTT) boxes.

To understand the significance of the deal, it helps to understand the history of TV ratings measurement.

For more than a half century, Nielsen ratings have helped determine the rise and fall of network sitcoms, TV dramas, world premiere broadcast movies, sporting events, political rallies and conventions, and the careers of a number of national news anchors who were judged more by the ratings they generated than the news judgment they exercised.

What's Watched, Not What's Liked

The roots of the A.C. Nielsen Co. stretch all the way back to the 1920s when a market analyst named Arthur Nielsen founded Nielsen Media Research. In the beginning, the company focused on brand advertising analysis. It expanded to radio market analysis during the 1930s and moved on to television in the 1950s.

The company built its clout through a research model and statistical methodology that seems primitive now. The samples are not truly random. Participants are incentivized to fill out the form (nominal cash reward) and, since they are aware of their roles, there are concerns this can lead to response bias in recording and viewing habits. What's more, it's a pretty small sample: something like 23,000 households nationwide to collectively reflect the viewing habits of all households in the US.

Nielsen ratings are not qualitative evaluations of how much a program is liked. They simply measure how many people watched, and quantify the audience size and demographic composition.

Plenty of Clout


Learning Opportunities

Nielsen ratings can make or break a TV show -- or careers. Depending on the results of a single Nielsen ratings book, the contract of an actor or broadcaster can be renewed or cancelled.

Decades ago, Nielsen gathered ratings from viewer diaries, which required members of target audiences to self-record everything they watched day by day. While Nielsen has gradually adopted new technologies, it still measures local TV audiences in part with data from these paper diaries, which many considered outdated and ineffective even before the Internet age.

In major metro areas, Nielsen relies on higher-tech solutions. These include electronic meters that capture not only what channel is being watched, but also who is watching and when, including time-shifted viewing and set-top boxes that deliver a constant, real-time stream of information.

Tweet This!

Two years ago, Nielsen started capitalizing on social media to better gauge the popularity of TV shows through a partnership with Twitter. Through a multi-year deal that began in the fall 2013 TV season, Twitter started providing Nielsen with social metrics from its users, which it is using to complement its current TV ratings.

And earlier this year, Nielsen increased the value of that relationship by expanding the type of information it provides for its Twitter TV Ratings service. The new feature, delivered overnight for more than 250 US TV networks, enables Nielsen customers to identify the age and gender of those who are both tweeting about various TV shows and events, as well as those who are viewing those tweets.

Viewing Across Screens

The new deal with Adobe is yet another attempt to deliver consistent and comprehensive measurement across screens. As David F. Poltrack, chief research officer at CBS Corp. noted as far back as 2013, "The proliferation of smartphones and tablets has generated a substantial 'connected' TV audience that is simultaneously watching television and accessing the Internet through these devices."

And cross-platform, multi-screen connectedness is doing nothing but growing stronger.

According to the just released bi-annual Adobe Digital Index U.S. Digital Video Benchmark Report, which analyzes online TV (TV Everywhere) and other, non-authenticated online video trends: TV consumption across devices grew 388 percent year-over-year -- a new record.

  • Programmers saw unique monthly viewers increase by 146 percent year-over-year across browsers and TV apps
  • Online TV consumption remained fragmented across platforms, but gaming consoles and OTT devices gained the largest percentage of market share (194 percent growth year-over-year), while Android apps market share (up 28 percent year-over-year) surpassed browsers (down 41 percent year-over-year) as access points for watching TV online
  • Viewing of (non-authenticated) online videos on smartphones (14 percent share) surpassed tablets (13 percent share).

Title image by Yannis  (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license. Paper diary image by Elke Sisco (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.