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Pat Alsop

Pat AlsopPat Alsop

Local Media Specialist


As you may be aware, Nielsen announced in late 2016 that they were (finally, many exclaimed) doing away with paper diaries for measurement of TV viewing in the 140 TV markets where they were still being used.  This was initially to have taken place in 2017, but has been shifted to mid-to-late 2018.  What many advertisers may not know, however, is that Nielsen is actually in the process of making sweeping changes to its measurement panels and methodologies across all 210 US television markets.  This “Local Market Transformation” (as Nielsen is calling it) will result in shifts to overall viewing and individual ratings across every Nielsen DMA.

Every local TV advertiser should understand enough about these updates to assure that their agency is taking full advantage of available resources and making adequate preparations.  As “impact” data for these methodological changes starts to hit the market, it is becoming clear that agencies need to be doing their homework to prepare for these shifts before they become currency.

Few in the media business shed any tears at Nielsen’s 2016 announcement that it was retiring the paper diary.  Indeed, the methodology which was still being utilized in 140 US markets to capture household and demographic viewing detail during periodic “sweep” periods had already lost its accreditation with the Media Rating Council in 2010.

Dreamstime | © Sandesh Patil


Nielsen’s diary measurement has further been challenged in recent years by Rentrak (now Comscore TV), which utilizes return path data from cable and satellite providers to generate viewing data with a much more robust sample than Nielsen’s diary panels (albeit with an entirely different methodology on many levels, including the way in which demographics are assigned).  Nielsen had seen some station and agency business add (and in some cases shift entirely to) Comscore in certain DMAs.  Indeed, some advertisers have begun to use Comscore as currency in certain markets … all of which has no doubt underscored the need for Nielsen to revisit their methodology in diary markets.

To be fair, the removal of diaries has not been as simple as it may sound.  To eliminate diaries in these markets, there needs to be some other measurement technology in place.  The most obvious answer is return path data from set top boxes, such as what Comscore is using.  However, even this requires making agreements with individual cable and satellite providers and working with their data to understand its nuances.  As Nielsen points out, set top boxes (even return path capable ones) were not designed to measure audience, and so they do not always do it well … or certainly not consistently.  Further, Comscore’s solution for demographics is based on the occupants of the household vs. who is most likely to have been watching, and Nielsen has always assigned demographic ratings intended to quantify those who are actually watching by age and sex.

Changes by Market Type

As part of its Local Market Transformation, Nielsen is rolling out changes to its measurement across not only its diary markets, but also its Local People Meter, set top meter, and code reader markets.  These changes are likely to result in shifts in overall viewership and individual ratings across every DMA in the US.


In 25 Local People Meter DMAs, Nielsen is adding its Personal People Meter samples (used previously in the US only for radio measurement) to its TV panels in each DMA.  It’s limiting TV panelists from the PPM pool to those which live in the TV DMA, and it has introduced separate encoding and processing for TV versus radio.  This is on top of expansion to LPM household counts which Nielsen had already undergone in 2015-2017.

This shift will effectively double the panel sizes in each DMA (individual changes vary by DMA, but are significant increases in all cases).  This will result in a reduction in standard error and reported zeroes, and increased stability.  Further, the PPM technology will allow Nielsen to begin including out-of-home viewing in its currency for the first time.

Meter/Code Reader

In 31 set top meter and 14 code reader markets (where viewing is already electronically measured via Nielsen technologies placed in the household), cable and satellite return path data will be incorporated into the measurement.  Further, data from Nielsen’s National People Meter panel in those DMAs will be incorporated into the measurement.  In 19 of the set top meter markets, PPM technology will also be added to the measurement (i.e. in the set top meter markets which overlap with PPM radio measurement).

The introduction of return path set top box data will allow for significant increases in household samples.  The incorporation of NPM in all of the markets (and PPM in some), plus the use of additional 3rd party data, will help to inform consistent use of the set top box data and to assign demographics to all viewing.  This will enable Nielsen to provide consistent household and demographic measurement in these DMAs, including out-of-home viewing, with increased stability and a reduction in reported zeroes.


In the 140 Diary markets, paper diaries will be retired in favor of return path set top box data, and the introduction of roughly 7,000 Code Reader households to address coverage gaps in Nielsen’s set top box agreements (these meters will be concentrated in over-the-air households to address gaps in measurement).

Again, Nielsen will use its National People Meter panel and other 3rd party data to quality control set top box data and to assign demographic viewing.  Once again, these significantly larger samples will increase stability and eliminate reported zeroes, and electronic measurement with viewer assignment will allow for continues reporting in these DMAs (i.e. no more “sweeps”).  Last but not least, these changes of course also eliminate the manual self-reporting associated with the diary system.

Dreamstime | © Monkey Business Images


Local Market Transformation Impact Data and Rollout Timing

The incorporation of return path data into Nielsen’s local TV measurement will occur in stages, based on the timing of agreements with individual multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs).  Stage 1 will include Charter, Dish and DirecTV.  Later, a Stage 2 will incorporate more recently announced agreements with Comcast and AT&T U-Verse.  For the sake of comparison, Comscore’s measurement currently features Charter, DirecTV, Dish, Cox, and AT&T.

Nielsen is releasing detailed impact data for several measurement periods in each DMA in advance of the measurement changes becoming currency.  Impact data allows buyers and sellers to review measurement data for “old” and “new” methodologies side by side and assess differences before the new methodology becomes transactional currency.  The schedule for the impact data varies by market type, but is generally beginning with October and November, 2017 data and continuing with January, 2018 data (and every month thereafter until the data becomes currency later in 2018).

What Does All of This Mean For Advertisers?

The fact that Nielsen has announced that they plan to convert the remaining 140 paper diary markets to electronic measurement is a pronounced benefit for every Spot TV negotiator in the industry – a reason to jump for joy.  Ultimately, the changes across diary and other market types should lead to greater stability in the ratings and fewer reported zeroes, facilitating the estimation and stewardship processes.  Further, it will allow for continuous demographic reporting across DMAs, eliminating the need to override “out of sweep” ratings.  This will be good for advertisers as well, as it should eliminate some of the methodological variability in posting processes (leading to greater consistency).

However, in the short term, agency buyers have some work to do.  Overall viewership (Persons Using Television, or PUTs) as well as individual ratings are going to change.  Indeed, based on impact data recently released from Nielsen, even in LPMs (markets with the largest samples and continuous measurement), the addition of PPM to the panels will lead to significant shifts – particularly in certain demos and dayparts.

What advertisers need to understand is that their agencies need to be doing due diligence in preparation for these new data streams becoming currency later this year.  In late 2017, Nielsen conducted detailed webinars on changes being made in each market type, along with schedules for impact data.  The impact data is being made available to subscribers via their processors (MediaOcean, Strata, etc.) as well as through a side-by-side comparison tool offered by Nielsen (the NLTV Dashboard).

As impact data becomes available, Nielsen is also conducting presentations overviewing key changes and comparisons between the current and new methodologies.  All of these presentations and the decks that accompany them are available to subscribers in the Local Client Workspace on the Nielsen Answers customer portal.

Spot TV buyers will also need to adjust and refine how a market is analyzed, with respect to rating projection and posting outcomes.   Change can be intimidating, especially when many of the past reasons for under or over performing will be reduced (i.e., zero cells and lack of research data availability for specific dates).  As is the case with any transformation, persistence and diligent study on the subject is the best way to succeed.

Carefully analyzed rating projections lead to accurate cost-per-point estimates, good posting results, and a satisfied client.  Clients should expect their agencies to prepare for these changes by:

  • Vigilantly educating their planning and buying teams on all Nielsen methodological updates and enhancements pertaining to the transition and attending or reviewing all offered webinars.
  • Conducting detailed reviews and comparisons of impact data for relevant markets, demos and dayparts to understand how changes in methodologies and panels will affect PUTs and ratings once the new measurement becomes currency.
  • Combine this understanding of impact on methodology and panel changes with knowledge and trending to project ratings moving forward post currency, including viewing shifts over time and during key periods such as political campaigns.
  • Develop a plan (and secure client approval) for dealing with station under-delivery (UD) pre and post currency. Nielsen impact data is not to be used as currency until it becomes currency, so UD incurred prior to the currency change is subject to the methodology in place at the time.  UD and market/station performance should not be re-expressed using impact data, other than for analysis and learning.

Trending has been and will continue to be an important part of the estimating process –  primarily because evaluating the past can help inform future decisions.  Agencies should compare past trends of Persons Using Television (PUT) and Shares to impact data as it becomes available.  Certainly, they should analyze each station by daypart; however, trending by day, date and quarter hour is also highly recommended as early impact data shows variability at these levels.  Buyers should trend back at least two years to help identify the swings in PUTs, shares, in-tabs, cable viewing, station movement and other outside viewing sources.

There will undoubtedly be some period of adjustment in the marketplace as these new methodologies become currency.  However, agencies (and their clients) who have undergone meticulous preparation and taken full advantage of available data will be far better positioned than those who do not.  Clients should understand their agency’s plans for preparation, so that there are no unpleasant surprises and so the change itself does not become an excuse for subpar performance.


Note:  This post is not an endorsement of Nielsen or Comscore, and is intended to provide an update to local TV advertisers on changes that Nielsen is making to its panels and methodology and to provide guidance on how best to prepare for them.  MMi does not endorse specific providers and subscribes to research from a variety of providers based on our client’s needs.

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