There’s a major shift en route in how Nielsen measures viewing habits, and it’s a long-awaited one. The company has been working towards “total content ratings” since 2013, with the goal of tracking both live and delayed viewing across all linear and digital platforms, and while the full release of that has been pushed back from early 2016 to second quarter 2016 to later this year to March 1, 2017, it is still on its way, and will have significant sports implications. Interestingly enough, the delay isn’t about the technology; the data’s already there and being produced, and as of August, all participating publishers can see not just their own data (which they’ve been able to for a while), but also other participating publishers’ data. Nielsen has announced that the data won’t be made available to agencies until Jan. 1, 2017, though, and not to media until March 1, 2017. Their statement has comments of support for that plan from numerous TV executives, including one from ESPN:

In alignment with what our clients have requested, Nielsen has commenced a phased release schedule for Total Content Ratings tools and data:

  • Aug. 1, 2016: The Total Content Ratings toolset became available to all participating publishers with the ability to see data for other publishers—an important milestone in evaluation.
  • Fourth Quarter 2016: The participating publisher release will continue. In addition, Nielsen will also make select data available to agencies and the press.
  • January 1, 2017: The Total Content Ratings toolset will become available to agencies in addition to publishers.  Nielsen will continue to make select data available to the press.
  • March 1, 2017: The Total Content Ratings toolset will be available to all Nielsen clients.

This multi-phased release plan enables participating publishers, then agencies, to evaluate data before the final release phase in March. Between now and March 1, 2017, clients with access will be able to use the data for internal purposes only. Effective March, all clients will be able to use the data externally to support their business needs.

“Nielsen is on the right path to Total Audience measurement, but this is a complex and collaborative effort that demands a patient and measured approach toward successful implementation across evolving platforms. The new Total Content Ratings schedule will give us the time we need to complete that process, evaluate results and ensure the best outcome,” said Artie Bulgrin, SVP Global Research & Analytics, ESPN, Inc.  

This data could be quite important for ESPN and other sports networks, as this is trying to allow for apples-to-apples comparisons of “all viewing across linear TV, DVR, VOD, connected TV devices (Roku, Apple TV and Xbox), mobile, PC and tablets.” Sports networks have already started releasing streaming data for many of their big events, but that data isn’t always on an apples-to-apples basis with the conventional TV ratings. However, a shift of this kind may not be entirely positive for sports, as a big part of this focus is capturing delayed (on-demand or DVR) viewing that wasn’t included in the C3 or C7 ratings, and that could potentially boost other genres of programming more than “DVR-proof” sports. Consider what Jason Lynch of AdWeek wrote about the results for one broadcast drama last October:

An early test of Nielsen’s total audience measurement reveals just how much of a program’s audience is overlooked by the current C3 and C7 metrics. For one client’s broadcast drama that aired in early September, Nielsen found the following:

  • 45 percent of the episode’s audience watched during its live airing
  • An additional 32 percent watched it via DVR during the first seven days after it aired
  • 2 percent watched on DVR between 8 days and 35 days after it aired
  • 7 percent of the audience watched it on VOD from within 35 days
  • 6 percent watched via a connected TV device
  • 8 percent watched digitally, streaming it on a PC, mobile device or tablet

Notably, among the adults 25-34 demographic, only 15 percent watched the episode live (compared with 64 percent of adults 50 and older). Of that same 25-34 demo, 22 percent used a connected TV to watch the show, and 18 percent watched it digitally, the highest of any demo.

“No longer are [networks] just stuck with [live viewers],” said Clarken. “Through total audience, we’re now picking up all of their viewing across DVR, VOD and connected TV, and able to add that together so they can get a real sense of their audiences, and not just be restricted to reporting out or talking about their live audiences. Live and DVR is very dominant in the older demographics, very less predominant in the younger demographics, so being able to measure that is extremely valuable.”

It seems much less likely 55 per cent of the sports audience isn’t watching live, so this could possibly be a boost for other programming relative to sports. Live still has plenty of advantages, though, especially when it comes to commercials, and there could be positives here for ESPN and other sports networks too, particularly as they intensify their streaming and over-the-top options. The new system will count those views as part of the overall ratings, not as a separate silo, so that may provide extra incentive for sports networks to emphasize their streaming. We’ll see how it all plays out, but these long-in-the-creation new ratings are certainly going to have a major impact on the TV world, including the sports world.


About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.

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