The eyes have it. Or do they?

Television ratings, much like the make up of sausages, are a fairly mysterious realm for those outside the marcomms industry, and, after asking around a bit, it seems they’re also a fairly mysterious realm for many within it.

At present, Nielsen, which recently announced that Sky, TVNZ and TVWorks decided to reinstate it as the supplier of television audience measurement services for another eight years, samples what seems like a rather small 500 households (with plans to expand that to 600 by 2011) and then extrapolates the results to show what programmes the nation is watching. Obviously, the networks then sell their advertising around that. So is this a large enough sample and, with quickly changing viewing habits, are the results accurate enough to justify the huge amount of money companies spend on the broadcast medium?

Not surprisingly, Claire Harris, managing director Nielsen Television Audience Measurement New Zealand says yes on both counts and points to the fact that most surveys conducted in New Zealand are usually around the 1000 respondent mark.  The TV audience measurement survey that Nielsen conducts samples slightly more than that every night (500 homes equates to around 1200 people), 365 days a year and, added to that, she says trends become apparent through the aggregation of this data over long periods of time.

She says the 500 household sample is designed to accurately reflect the make-up of the New Zealand population, something achieved with the help of information from Statistics New Zealand and from face to face interviews with the households that have the technology in their homes (to find out, for example, the number of TVs inside).

As far as the onset of digital TV goes, she says this won’t affect the need for the Nielsen’s “proprietary technology” in the home, which shows when the television is turned on and what channel it’s tuned to (no need for face recognition technology here, she says, even though it has been trialled in Japan). And when it comes to personal video recorders, which are closing in on 20 percent penetration in New Zealand, Harris says Nielsen has a “very technical solution” that involves new methodology and technology that monitors audio signatures. And, with 30,000 units already in place around the world, she says this technology is recognised globally as being the most accurate form of PVR measurement.

Harris wouldn’t divulge how much the eight-year contract is worth to Nielsen, but she says the importance of ratings in the trading environment means it’s an investment the broadcasters have to make. And

While the 500 household sample may seem fairly small at first glance, Michael Carney, who has opined on such ratings matters before, says there is audit data to show its relative accuracy. And, more importantly, in this small market, it’s pretty much the best we can get and all we can afford.

“Also, bear in mind the sample has gradually grown. It used to be 400 back in the day,” he says.

Basically, he says the Nielsen data works well in terms of a broad brush approach to quantifying ratings. But when it comes to seeing how many “left-handed paper-hangers under the age of 25” are watching, not so much.

As for the switchover to digital TV, in theory he says a fibre enabled New Zealand would allow the operators to access ratings data. In the US, cable operators have a ‘return path’ where data is fed back to them through the phone line, so they are able to tell who’s watching, how many are watching and if they happen to fast forward the ads with their PVRs (Carney says the NZ marketplace is too small for that at present and Sky doesn’t require its MySky users to plug their devices in to the phone line. Also, the US TiVo box has the capability to display limited messages during the fast-forward phase).

These results are also supplemented with their own panels. And while the Kiwi networks may be able collect the data in the future, he believes they will still require companies like Nielsen to analyse it.

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