For years, media research company Nielsen has had to listen to complaints that the sample size it uses to model its TV ratings — the backbone of the $70 billion TV advertising industry — wasn’t big enough. It is also frequently accused of relying too heavily on the 40,000 households that provide the company with viewership data via Nielsen boxes, rather than data from set-top boxes through which every cable and satellite subscriber gets its programming. Set-top-box data, critics argued, is a more accurate reflection of what people are watching, even though it doesn’t account for households that don’t subscribe to a pay TV service.
Nielsen attempted to remedy some of those issues Monday by signing a deal with Dish Network for access to data from the satellite provider’s set-top boxes. Nielsen declined to reveal the exact number of households this would add to its national sample, but a spokesperson said all 210 local markets will be represented. Dish had 13.8 million subscribers at the end of 2015. That includes an estimated 500,000 for its internet-only Sling TV service, which the company isn’t breaking out from its total subscriber numbers.
Dish gets an undisclosed amount of cash in exchange for access to this anonymized data and possibly some goodwill in the TV industry after being taken to task over the ad-skipping abilities of its “Hopper” DVR service. Dish reached a deal with broadcaster Fox in February that would disable the Hopper’s ad-skip feature for seven days on all Fox shows.
The deal is part of an aggressive expansion for Nielsen, which is attempting to introduce what it calls “Total Audience Measurement” in 2016, providing TV makers and advertisers with viewership data regardless of which screen (TV, phone or tablet) a show is being watched on. Nielsen rival Rentrak, which was recently bought by comScore, uses set-top data from cable and satellite providers for its ratings.
What won’t be seen for a few months yet is how this influx of new information will affect the daily and weekly ratings the company compiles for clients. Nielsen says it’ll certainly provide them with the ability to report on smaller networks and shows — programs that might appear to have not been watched by anyone in the national sample may, in fact, be watched by a few dedicated souls, which will show in the set-top data. Otherwise, as when introducing any new source to a sample, only the tale of the tape will tell.