Making It Count: Nielsen Starts Measuring Streaming Viewing

By Amit Jagwani  | 

Viewers are increasingly turning to online and streaming video for their entertainment needs. According to Hub, as many as eight in 10 consumers now use a TV streaming service, and one in five plan to sign up for an additional service within the next six months. The unprecedented growth of mobile and connected TV usage in the last year should further spur that trend among a viewer base that’s getting younger and prefers channels like YouTube and Netflix over traditional linear television. Nielsen estimates that by 2024, streaming platforms will have 210 million subscribers—and the company is determined to count them all. The measurement firm recently introduced a new system called Nielsen Streaming Video Ratings that aims to capture audience information across 10 subscription-viewing services and report on the specifics of when viewers are tuning in and what platforms or apps they’re using to watch their favorite films and shows. Demographic details like household income levels plus ethnic backgrounds will also be recorded. Here’s how Nielsen hopes to get it done.

How It’s Being Measured
Nielsen has been measuring television audiences since the 1950s. Their linear TV ratings use “panel measurement”—aka, a survey sample—to determine and report estimated TV viewership. In this method, a subset of a population representing all ages and demographic groups is randomly chosen and given meters that record viewing patterns. Nielsen next takes into consideration various factors, including census data, to break down viewership to the individual level and report those numbers as regional and national ratings.

But with the exponential growth of streaming viewership, marketers have called for a measurement system that mirrors the one long used to capture linear TV data. According to Nielsen, in houses where members use streaming services, almost 25 percent of viewing is done on those platforms. Adjust for younger cohorts, and that number grows. Netflix comprises 7 percent of viewing in those same homes, and in addition to the 80 percent of consumers who use at least one streaming service, nearly one-third of homes have between three and four streaming platforms to choose from. Netflix alone counts 74 million subscribers in the United States and Canada. eMarketer reports that of those who have streaming capability, 34% of households in the U.S. opt for ad-supported services. It’s easy to see why accurately capturing data around ad-supported streaming viewership would be valuable for marketers.

Nielsen’s Streaming Video Ratings will use the same national panel that measures linear television, ensuring data is directly comparable and can be meaningfully analyzed next to TV viewership. The company’s already installed roughly 9,000 streaming meters, which operate like linear meters to provide a picture of how households are consuming content. For now, viewership measurement is limited to a small number of apps and platforms—but they’re also the ones that represent the largest viewing cohorts, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Disney Plus, YouTube, Tubi, Pluto, Comcast, Charter Spectrum and Sling TV. Additional platforms will be added in the coming months, when they get large enough to provide accurate info.

Why It’s Important
In time, Nielsen’s new ratings should provide advertisers invaluable insight into how audiences are watching programs and how total TV viewing times break down across both linear and streaming. Disparities between the two may also be revealed. The Hollywood Reporter notes that a “binge-release” model of platforms like Netflix often leads to massive yet short-lived ratings spikes. And because Nielsen bases its ratings on total viewing minutes for all episodes, a series with an expansive library—The Office or Grey’s Anatomy, for example—will have a natural ratings advantage by virtue of its having many episodes available. Understanding these differences in viewership could prove beneficial to marketers, providing more transparency into overall streaming usage and helping with decision-making when it comes to programming, marketing, advertising and even casting-related matters. Understanding how consumers move from one type of app to another will be an additional bonus.

“What we really haven’t had until now is that broader picture of overall TV usage of apps through the TV—not just how much time consumers are spending in total but also by app, and not just the SVOD apps, but on AVOD, on MVPDs,” said Kevin Rini, Nielsen SVP. As new-release streaming movies sit alongside television in the ratings and people increasingly re-watch favorite shows, it will be more crucial than ever to capture and report accurate data on those trends. Says Rini, this service will help “any business buying, selling, or investing in media to have the clear picture of the impact of consumer shifts.”

Looking Forward
Of course, there’s still work to be done. For now, measurements and ratings will be captured only on television screens and those devices that interact with TV screens: smart TVs, connected devices and video-gaming consoles. Anyone lying in bed with a laptop or watching on a tablet or smartphone won’t be included in the initial count. But eventually, Nielsen believes every home in its panel that’s capable of streaming will have a streaming meter on their TV. It will take roughly two years for all those meters to be installed—which is, appropriately, the amount of time it typically takes the company to refresh its participant lists and turn over its panel sample. For now, the company hopes its efforts will bring transparency to the streaming sector of the entertainment industry. Nielsen is off to a good start.

Amit Jagwani
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