Dear Diary: The Future of Local TV Audience Measurement in Smaller Markets

06.18.2015 David Gustafson

Part I – The Fable of Mabel 

Once upon a time, an eager and inquisitive soul named Mabel the Marketer moved to a small village in the not-so-far-away kingdom of Gross Ratings Pointe, where the citizens were affectionately known as GRiPs.  Mabel quickly recognized that she needed a telephone to help her get to know the GRiPs in her village.  In those days, though, only one store in the entire kingdom sold telephones, so Mabel ventured to the capital city.

When she arrived at the phone store, Mabel was drawn to the smart phone prominently displayed on the front wall.  “Hello,” said Neal the store clerk as he approached, “how may I help you?”

“I would like to buy this phone,” said Mabel.

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“Ah, yes, it is a few years old, but it is our finest device,” Neal said with a smile.  “Tell me, do you live in one of our 25 largest villages?”

“Well, no,” Mabel replied, “but why does that matter?”

“You see,” Neal answered, “we only offer that model to GRiPs in the largest metropolises.”

Only slightly discouraged, Mabel scanned the store in search of another phone that would suit her needs.  “What about this one,” she asked, as she pointed to the flip phone in the next display.  “It is not everything I had hoped for, but it has some features I like.”

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“A fine choice,” Neal exclaimed, as he handed Mabel a piece of paper.  “We offer that model to GRiPs in these 31 medium-sized villages.”

Mabel scanned the paper Neal had given her.  “But my village is small and not on your list,” she said disappointedly.  “Surely, you must have something that will help me reach the GRiPs in my village.” 

“Well,” Neal replied, “why didn’t you say so?”  He walked Mabel toward the back of the store, where he pointed her to a square device with numbers and nothing else.

“This is what we can offer you,” Neal said proudly.  “The technology has been around a long time, but we’ve made big improvements,” he continued.  “The cord is longer and it now has push buttons!”

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“But this cannot be,” cried a frustrated Mabel.  “The GRiPs in my village are just as important as GRiPs in the larger villages…there must be a better option for me!”

Part II – Five Reasons Why Rentrak May Be the Right Track for Nielsen Diary Markets

Mabel is not unlike countless marketers, advertisers, agencies, and media sellers in lower-ranked TV markets who have grown frustrated with having the Nielsen diary as the only mechanism for understanding local viewing behavior.  Here’s a look at five key reasons Rentrak’s TV ratings service has made – and most likely will continue to make – significant inroads among local buyers and sellers in the 154 markets that Nielsen today serves only with diaries: 

  1. Consistent Methodology – Nielsen currently uses three different methodologies for local TV measurement, depending on the size of the market:  Local People Meters (LPMs) for the 25 largest markets, less robust electronic metering for 31 mid-sized “set meter” markets, and paper diaries for the remaining 154 markets.  Starting in fourth quarter of this year, Nielsen will introduce yet another metering technology, known as Code Reader, to 14 of the current diary markets in an effort to eliminate the paper trail in those markets.  Rentrak, meanwhile, employs a single, consistent methodology across all 210 local TV markets, regardless of market size.
  2. Massive Dataset – Rentrak’s TV ratings model is rooted in anonymized, aggregated tuning data collected from an estimated 32 million TV sets throughout the country.  This robust dataset enables Rentrak to provide more stable audience data for more stations, even in smaller TV markets.
  3. Passive Electronic Measurement – While Nielsen’s diary-based service relies on recruited panelists to actively (and accurately) write down everything they watched on TV for an entire week, Rentrak’s model requires no active participation.  Viewers simply watch TV, and Rentrak does the rest.  
  4. Elimination of Diary Biases – Rentrak’s massive and passive measurement model eliminates two potential biases that can impact the local viewing landscape in smaller markets, particularly for local news broadcasts.  First, diary-keepers may be more prone to write down that they watched an entire program or newscast, even if they viewed only a portion.  Second, for programs that air every night of the week, diary-keepers may be more likely to indicate watching every night – especially if they are scrambling at the end of a week to complete their diaries.  Rentrak’s model accurately captures length of viewing and which days were viewed.  
  5. 24/7/365 Availability – Last but certainly not least in terms of importance for smaller markets, Rentrak’s model eliminates reliance on Nielsen’s quarterly sweep periods by providing local ratings for every day of the year.  Buyers and sellers no longer have to base decisions solely on how stations and programs performed four months out of the year.


For these reasons, the balance of power in the kingdom of Gross Ratings Pointe appears to be shifting, raising some interesting questions for Mabel and others like her in smaller villages.  Will Nielsen announce more Code Reader markets?  If so, will it come soon enough?  Will entire markets switch exclusively to Rentrak as the accepted local ratings currency?  The one certainty seems to be that the answers will not be written in a diary.  


About the Author

David Gustafson

As Cox Media’s Director of Linear & Audience Research, David plays a key role in the company’s usage and interpretation of TV audience data. With more than two decades of industry experience, David currently is a member of the Nielsen Local Policy Guidelines Committee (PGC) and VAB Measurement Innovation Task Force, as well as client advisor to Comscore. Known as “The Professor,” David’s articles combine his passion for writing with a penchant for concisely explaining complex topics.

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