Nielsen ratings to include streaming

Our habits have changed. It’s been two generations since everyone sat down in front of the family’s only television every night to watch something from the major networks. We all got multiple TVs, then computers, then tablets and smartphones, then streaming devices. As a result, more and more of us enjoy programs, but fewer and fewer of us do it “just” by watching broadcast or pay television.

Nielsen, once known as the AC Nielsen company, has been providing broadcast ratings since 1932. (1932? Holy moley that’s a long time.) They’ve been slow to adapt to new technologies and as a result the picture of the average viewer has grown slowly out of touch with the way people actually watch.

It’s only been a few years since Nielsen started tracking DVR views at all, and now they are prepared to take the next step. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Nielsen will now be tracking viewing via broadband streaming services onto TVs and tablets, as well as tracking social media impact. This should provide a much better picture of who is talking about a show. It’s bound to be a positive step for struggling “offbeat” shows and buzz-worthy cable programs while depressing the impact that traditional “cops and docs” dramas have, since they appeal to an older demographic that does little streaming or social media.

It’s not clear where or how the viewing is going to be tracked, since the THR article says that streaming services like Netflix lack certain technologies required for accurate tracking. It doesn’t say if viral videos (like those found on YouTube) will count the same as studio fare, and it’s hard to know exactly what the broadcast industry will say about these ratings. Streaming sources rarely have commercials and Nielsen ratings are generally used to set commercial rates. On the other hand there are many other companies tracking social media impact and Nielsen finds itself in the unfamiliar position of small fish in a big pond.

Effective ratings could be used to set licensing fees for streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, but that’s untried territory for Nielsen. Still, the company’s sterling reputation with broadcasters could help Nielsen find its way into those negotiations, especially if the ratings numbers favor broadcasters.

At some point, the playing field has to level. Even today, people don’t care if they watch on commercial-supported broadcast television, commercial-free pay TV, streaming on the TV or on their personal devices. Content is king, to co-opt an old saying, and at some point it all will be seen the same way by advertisers. This is simply one step in that direction.