July 25, 2007
Changing Measurement Systems Move Even Slower than Technological Change...

If the rate of technological change is often slower than many people want to acknowledge that it is, as I wrote about earlier today, it is perhaps even more true that the systems we have in place to measure how people consume media is even more slow at adapting to these changes.

There's little doubt that the process of measuring television viewership based on a modest sampling of American homes became less and less relevant as television viewing became more and more fragmented. Now, as traditional "television" viewing patterns are moving to a variety of new platforms and a variety of time-shifting behaviors, the whole model of the linear television channel is showing cracks, as well as its supporting advertising system.

Again, I think it's important to emphasize that we aren't talking about the death of the 30-second spot, or the demise of television as we know it, but there is little question that a lot of changes are happening at relatively quick speed, when looking at change from a decade-by-decade perspective. The problem is that any single metrics system is designed to measure a single phenomena, but it's becoming increasingly clear we don't live in a single-phenomena world.

Of course, what we're talking about largely is the revelation that many of the accepted "realities" of a metrics system like Nielsen has always been based on a lie: that watching a program means watching its ads; that having the television set on equals viewing; that watching a television ad building a brand automatically equals purchasing, that all television viewers watch in the same way; and that a small sample size can track national television viewing practices. Metrics are necessary lies we tell ourselves in order to have a basic way of doing business, and the difficulty of admitting the current measurement systems don't work is trying to develop another metric instead.

As I wrote about Nielsen's NetRatings earlier this month, the media industries often try to replace one simple ratings system with another one, in this case replacing page views with length of time on a page.

That takes me to the comments made by Leslie Moonves of CBS earlier this month, when he chastised Jericho viewers for not viewing in the way that the current system needs. He said, since so may viewers were watching the show on DVR and on the Web, the network didn't realize how popular the show really was, and that the fans need to "show up on the television." First of all, most fans would not consider the DVR "not television," but I find it quite interesting that the industry would criticize its consumers for how it wanted to use their product, rather than trying to work more efficiently and making the product available to them in the way they want. See Brian Steinberg's analysis from Advertising Age for more.

The problem is that viewers are traditionally conceived of not as the consumer after all, in the TV industry, but as the product, and advertisers are the consumers. But losing viewers makes the whole process fall apart. I find it ironic that, even as change moves at a slow pace, the industry seems intent on moving at an even slower one, so that it still remains unable to account for these gradual changes in the media environment. (i.e. the current negotiation between TV writers and producers, as I wrote about last week).

Eleanor Baird examined these issues recently as well in her two series Challenges of Measuring Engagement (here and here) and Metrics Go Upfront (here and here).