Nielsen's Catherine Herkovic on Modernizing and Improving Audience Measurement

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Catherine Herkovic and yours truly share something in common:  We're in our fourth decade of exploring, then explaining, what makes the television universe tick.  In Herkovic's case, Nielsen has been the home base for her exploration, with management roles there involving both national and local television research.  She started this year in a new capacity -- Senior Vice President and leader of the company's Local TV transformation program, helping transform two key elements of TV audience measurement.  First, there are the products designed to collect and crunch viewership information, and second, there's the data-gathering and crunching technology inside those products.  Priority one for Herkovic is to expand the capabilities of both.

"We've been modernizing and improving our measurement dramatically by bringing increased sample [sizes] and return-path data into our measurement," explains Herkovic. "Why are we doing it?  Because we know that audiences are more fragmented than ever.  We're bringing in much bigger datasets so that the data will be more robust and stand up to the fragmentation and audiences we need to measure today."

Stage one of Nielsen's local transformation plan launched last July when the famed Nielsen television diary was officially retired and was replaced with electronic measurement.  Return-path data from set-top boxes, which provides audience viewing data for quarter hour reporting every day, replaced paper diaries in 137 markets in one fell swoop.  For the first time, clients may access detailed ratings on programming in these markets' day-in and day-out -- a huge leap over just getting this information during February, May, July and November, the so-called "sweep" months.  There are no more measurement "sweep" months and measurement gaps between those months.

What's more, the measurement covers over-the-air, cable/satellite and smart TV set or TV-connected device households.  "These markets get not only all-electronic measurement, but measurement that counts and represents all segments of the market," Herkovic says.  "We make sure over-the-air households are measured because [they] are a growing portion of the population (16.8 million or 14.4% of total U.S. TV households based on Nielsen data) and [they] also over index for diverse audiences that need to be represented in audience estimates.  People are cutting the cord, and if you watch over-the-air, you watch a lot of local TV.  It's absolutely essential that over-the-air homes are measured, and Nielsen is the only company that does that, making sure the diverse audiences represented in these homes are actually counted, reflecting the behavior of people as well as the devices they use."

The measurement of devices alone will not do because it is the behavior of people, not devices, that drives product purchase and media.

With Herkovic leading the way, Nielsen will implement the next stages of its combo product/technology upgrade.  Later this year, 27 additional markets will incorporate the return path data, allowing clients to look at these markets "at a more granular level."  Another stage, involving the top 44 markets, is the integration of portable people meter (PPM) panels with local people meters, which has long been accepted currency for measuring radio.  For TV measurement, these meters will double or triple the sample size of individual markets, and because they are portable, collect and interpret out-of-home viewership for the first time on a continuous basis.  "If you think about content like sports, to be able to count how many people watch [sports] in their home and watch in a hotel, in a bar or restaurant, or in someone else's household, adds to the audience we measure in home," she explains.  "This data we're now able to provide to our clients is a more complete measure of viewing."

A number of station groups have renewed their contracts with Nielsen in recent months, demonstrating confidence in the local transformation initiatives underway or soon to be deployed.  Those groups include Hearst, Cox Media, Graham Media, Meredith and Capital Broadcasting, with new national and local advertising clients also coming on board.  "Stations are looking to adapt to the fast-changing world of the consumer," Herkovic notes.  "They have a compelling footprint they can expand into a national view, as well, which can serve both local and national advertisers." 

Nielsen also measures stations' digital audiences if stations include a software development kit in their content transmission, allowing it to capture viewing from apps and smart TVs and credit that viewing to a local rating or digital rating report, depending on commercial load-- allowing it to show advertisers this new larger audience.

There's one more big initiative in this arena Nielsen will start next month:  Widespread deployment of Nano meters in sample households.  Placed on top of TV sets with no invasive wiring involved, these Nano meters and compatible remote controls serve as a next-generation measurement platform.  "A lot of people have beautiful flat-screen TVs and they don't want them messed with," Herkovic says.  "Nano is a sleek, much easier to use meter that will improve [viewer] cooperation."  Improving the experience -- and thus reliability -- of the panelist ultimately benefits Nielsen clients, as well.

The Nano meter rollout will initially cover small markets, then graduate to major and medium-size cities by the end of 2020.  The exploration of what makes the TV universe tick continues.

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