Reporting Television Viewership in 2009

What does it mean to “watch TV” in 2009? Endless choices abound for television viewers in a world where TiVo, Hulu, Netflix, Roku and myriad other distribution, recording and exclusive content options exist. As researchers measuring all manner of consumer behavior, we are constantly adapting our ways of asking about and analyzing these behaviors in order to get a true read on the who/when/why/what/how.
Take for example recent survey questions I’ve seen on TV viewership, asking respondents to “mark all channels (you) watched in the past week” and “mark all days and times (you) watched those channels.” Questions of this type are difficult for respondents to answer because it is not uncommon for a TiVo user watching a program recorded days earlier or someone streaming a recent network episode on Hulu to be unaware of the day, time and channel in which that program originally aired. Perhaps a better measure of this type of reported (rather than measured) consumer behavior would be to simply ask what shows were watched, and then match those shows up with known channels and time slots, but then how does one account for syndication?
With the recent announcement of a consortium looking to eventually compete with longtime television ratings monopoly Nielsen, critics of the current ratings provider cite a lack of precision and accuracy of the data. They note particular opposition to methods (or lack thereof) of measuring TV consumption online and on mobile devices. Google and online advertising campaign management tools have conditioned marketers to expect a much greater level of detail (and quantity) in reporting analytics, so it is difficult for those same buyers to accept the relative “fuzziness” of self-reported viewership. Yet, without survey (vs. server) data in the mix, the numbers are meaningless. In order to effectively measure the continually changing media landscape, we have a responsibility to also continually improve our survey research and design practices–but those who seek an approximation of online clickstream data for offline television viewers also have to be prepared to accept that the game is changing for all involved, and both sides have to work together to find an acceptable (and cost-effective!) alternative.

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