Nielsen to expand its TV sample

Times Staff Writer

In a nod to the rapidly changing entertainment landscape, Nielsen Media Research said Wednesday that it would triple the size of its TV ratings sample audience by 2011 to provide more accurate measurement.

“Audience fragmentation continues to increase,” said Sara Erichson, a Nielsen executive vice president for client services. “This is an acknowledgment that people watch television in different ways, and this is where television is headed.”

For years, Nielsen equipped 5,000 homes around the country with its “people meter” devices to compile Nielsen’s national ratings, which are used to help determine the price of TV advertising. Although that panel size provided good estimates for the size of audiences for the big broadcast networks, determining viewership for small cable channels was problematic.


What’s more, TV executives have long been frustrated that Nielsen does not factor “out-of-home” viewing in its estimates. That means that if people-meter participants watch a TV program or a ballgame at a restaurant or a friend’s house, they are not counted. These days, people also are downloading shows onto portable devices such as iPods, exacerbating Nielsen’s challenge.

Nielsen slowly began adding more homes to the audience panel five years ago. It currently has wired with people meters about 12,000 homes, which include about 35,000 people. Within four years, Nielsen hopes its sample audience will be made up of 37,000 homes with about 100,000 people.

The expansion is necessary as audiences continue to scatter.

In addition, people are watching television programs differently from how they did a few years ago. Nielsen estimates that nearly 20% of the homes with TVs in the U.S. now are equipped with digital video recorders, which allow people to watch TV shows at their convenience.

“Granted, people are watching more traditional television than ever before, but there are more TV channels and they are often time-shifting their viewing,” Erichson said.

Nielsen’s clients -- the TV networks, cable channels and advertising agencies -- are increasingly demanding that Nielsen come up with more precise ways to estimate audiences for various forms of entertainment.

Among its enhancements, Nielsen plans to work with another firm to begin measuring out-of-home viewing next year.


“Increasing the size of the sample audience is really important to measure the audience with the precision that our clients want and need,” Erichson said.

The industry also wants Nielsen to track the various media preferences of the sample audience to determine how individuals spend their time.