This week, Nielsen announced that its viewership numbers will include the TV shows that get to the living room via Internet-connected TVs rather than through antennas or a cable/sat box. It’s a modest acknowledgement of the cord-trimming trend by which viewers are turning to non-traditional sources for “TV” such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.
That’s good news, as far as it goes. But only a thimble’s worth. Nielsen, television’s quantifier of record, isn’t going nearly far enough to keep up with the times. Not accounting for rapidly evolving viewing habits and methods is a greater threat to the veracity of Nielsen’s numbers than age-old criticism of its method of computing them.
Video consumption from Internet sources may still be just a blip – it’s at 4.2 percent now, though it’s growing rapidly. But consumption on devices that are not TV sets – tablets, smartphones, computers ‑ is also happening, with perhaps an even more rapid rate of growth. A recent study by The Diffusion Group (TDG) predicts that 10 percent of TV watching will be on tablets within four years. Nielsen itself reports that about 40 percent of Americans use a tablet or smartphone as a second screen, while watching TV, at least once a day ‑ and 80 percent at least once a month.
The crux of Nielsen’s business model is in selecting representative households — Nielsen families — from which to extrapolate viewing patterns. Nielsen families agree to have a special box attached to their TV sets that can record viewing habits. There are only 22,000 of these families, carefully chosen to create a polling sample that represents 114.2 million U.S. households.