TV Measurement: Past, Present, and Future

Jun 1, 2023
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Explore the future of TV measurement and the need for data from multiple sources. Stay ahead in the fractured TV measurement landscape with tvScientific.

A brief history of how TV measurement started and where it's going

Although more and more TV viewers are paying directly for their entertainment through subscription fees to streaming services, advertising remains the primary method of funding TV production. That isn’t about to change any time soon.

What has changed is TV measurement; specifically, how we determine who’s viewing what, for how long, and from where. While linear TV measurement remains a strong primary source of viewership information, CTV advertising measurement is catching up, thanks to the steady market adoption of smart TVs and an increase in CTV viewership. 

Here’s a quick overview of where TV measurement came from, how it’s developed, and where it’s going. 

Check out our comprehensive guide, "Advertising on Television: Everything You Need to Know About the TV Medium" for even more helpful resources.

Brief History of TV Measurement

TV measurement, like a lot of broadcast conventions, has its roots in radio. In the 1930s, as radio began to spread across the United States, the Great Depression caused radio broadcasters to turn to advertising for financial support. Advertisers, in turn, wanted some method of ascertaining exactly who was listening to what. Enter radio measurement. 

Many methods were tried, including diaries, interviews, and automated meters, before advertisers quickly came to the realization that more important than “how” to measure was “what” to measure. Would it be more relevant to advertisers to measure exposure or engagement?

Exposure measures who is listening to what and for how long, whereas engagement measures how invested a listener may be in what they’re hearing. Archibald Crossley, widely credited as the founder of broadcast ratings, determined that exposure was the most effective unit of measurement for advertising purposes.  

Armed with Crossley’s methodology, radio broadcasters began measuring the exposure of the audience to their broadcasts and then relaying that information to advertisers. A market for measurements was born, and when, a couple of decades later, television began to take off, TV broadcasters, too, used exposure as their measurement of choice.

What Is Nielsen?

Nielsen is the gold standard of TV measurement. After more than 70 years of dominating the TV measurement space, “Nielsen ratings” have become synonymous with linear TV measurement. 

A.C. Nielsen was founded in 1923 as a marketing research company. The company soon went into measuring radio audiences and, in 1950, moved into television. It was a big risk. No one yet knew how big this new fad of watching programs on a screen would become. 

Nielsen focused on representative samples of the total TV audience, sending out diaries and a new device called the Audimeter, which recorded — on 16mm film — what channels a TV was tuned to. Nielsen families mailed their diaries and the film cartridge from the Audimeter to Nielsen’s headquarters every week, where the data was analyzed. As TV broadcasting grew, Nielsen’s influence grew with it. Nielsen accumulated mountains of exposure data, quickly dominating the market for TV measurement. 

As TV technology evolved, Nielsen’s TV measurement methods evolved as well, leading to the creation of a new Audimeter that transmitted its data across a phone line in the 1970s. Today, Nielsen has adapted to measure exposure on the internet and in video games and remains the market leader in media measurement.

The Limitations of Linear TV Measurement

Linear TV measurement, like Nielsen ratings, relies on external devices, diaries, or other indirect forms of TV measurement, which can lead to erroneous data. In addition, linear TV measurement cannot easily discriminate between different viewers or tell if more than one person is watching the TV. This makes it tricky to get an accurate sense of exactly how many people are seeing an advertisement and how they fit into a demographic pattern.

It also has to be said that many networks are not entirely happy with how dependent they have been on Nielsen for ratings in the past, in spite of the fact that Nielsen remains the only solution for many local TV markets. Measurement competitors have traditionally focused on national markets because that’s where the big money is, leaving wide swaths of advertising territory served only by Nielsen.

Network executives like former NBC Universal advertising head (and recent appointee as the CEO of Twitter) Linda Yaccarino have long criticized Nielsen for undercounting audiences. “Imagine you’re a quarterback, and every time you threw a touchdown, it was only worth four points instead of six. That’s basically what I’m dealing with every friggin’ day,” Yaccarino told an audience at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 2016.   

Nielsen suffered a major blow during the COVID-19 pandemic after it became clear the company undercounted viewership due to an inability to visit certain homes in person. Nielsen even lost its coveted Media Ratings Council (MRC) accreditation in 2021, only recently gaining it back.

These lapses from Nielsen opened the door for competitors, as well as causing a general loss of faith in traditional rating methods. Demand for a new way of measuring TV viewership has been steadily increasing over the years.   

What is ACR?

Automatic Content Recognition, or ACR, is emerging as an exciting new methodology in TV measurement. Instead of relying on secondary measurement tools like viewer diaries and Audimeters, ACR directly tracks what a viewer is watching and transmits that data instantaneously.

ACR works by taking screenshots of what a TV is displaying. These screenshots are then uploaded to a database and matched with content available on TV to identify what program the viewer is watching. That information is then cataloged and shared with advertisers.

First created in 2011 by music recognition service Shazam, ACR has since become a standard feature in many “smart” TVs. These smart TVs send their data to content providers and advertisers via data aggregators and demand-side platforms (DSPs). With the data gathered by ACR, advertisers are able to see in real-time who is viewing what and target their ad spends accordingly.  

ACR data can also get sent to the broadcaster, allowing them to see who is viewing their program. This allows broadcasters to, among other things, tailor recommendations for additional content, a feature that is especially useful in connected TV (CTV).

How CTV is Changing the Game

CTV refers to any TV, set-top-box, TV stick, or even gaming device that is connected to the internet and used to view streaming content. Unlike linear TV, which displays only what is broadcasted when it is broadcasted, CTV displays what the viewer chooses to watch when they choose to watch it. CTV is quite simply revolutionizing the way TV is viewed — and how advertisers support it. 

Most CTVs come with ACR built-in, sending CTV advertising measurement data back to their respective manufacturer or a designated partner. While these features can usually be disabled by the end-user, they are on by default.

CTVs allow for not only direct viewership measurement (through ACR), but direct advertising opportunities as well. The CTV can display ads directly on the device, before, during, or after the content is played.

Learn more about how CTV is changing the game with the CTV Advertising Playbook.

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The Future of TV Measurement

With so many OTT services to choose from — and a new one seeming to pop up every week — the landscape for TV measurement can be difficult to track. ACR has improved the situation, allowing advertisers to gather data directly from televisions, but there is still massive fragmentation of the marketplace.

Experts agree that the future of TV measurement will also be fragmented, with data coming from not just one or two major players, like Nielsen, but other, smaller companies as well. 

Linear TV measurement will continue to have a place, as it has been so ingrained in the marketplace that it will be hard to shake, but advertisers should expect to deal with a fusion of data from multiple sources. tvScientific can help advertisers make sense of this fractured landscape to ensure that their marketing material is seen by the right people at the right time. Request a demo today to see how the platform can help your brand grow.