Editor’s note: We edited this article on Feb 23, 2017, to remove references to hardware costs and installation time. As the meters are further refined, the production costs and installation parameters are changing.
Television is a very technical environment. To make sense of what content is being viewed, where, when, how and by whom, researchers around the world have long relied on sophisticated engineering solutions, and, for the most part, these solutions have answered the call beautifully. Today, however, the world of television is exploding with new viewing options—there’s not just more content, but more ways to watch it on one’s own schedule and to have it curated to one’s personal tastes. Today’s connected consumer can truly choose to watch anytime, anywhere and on the device of their choosing. With the flexibility of live, on demand or even binge viewing, consumers are now much more in control of their media consumption than ever before, and the technology to measure their behavior needs to evolve to keep pace.
Enter the Nano meter. It’s smaller, cheaper and faster to install in panelist homes and easier to maintain than existing metering devices. It’s also built from the ground up to be a wireless system that consumes very little energy and interfaces with a powerful cloud infrastructure. Those technical benefits are extremely important, not only because of the cost-savings involved, but because they’re expected to improve panel cooperation, boost data quality, and make it cost-effective to increase the size of television panels where and when needed—a crucial piece of the solution to address media fragmentation in the marketplace today and into the future.
In order to understand the extent of those improvements, let’s review first how television measurement is done today at Nielsen for traditional television, and in an advanced market like the U.S.
Traditional TV—also referred to as linear TV—is delivered to audiences (national or local) as a ‘linear’ experience: your favorite TV show gets delivered to you at a prescribed date and time, on a prescribed channel, and carries commercials from advertisers who have bought time during that broadcast hoping you’ll be receptive to their messages. Everyone who watches that show sees the same ads. To enable audience measurement in that type of environment, content is encoded at the source and decoded in a panel of 40,000 households that are carefully selected to represent the total viewing population.
The encoding process relies on hardware and software encoders that are installed at various distribution points of the media broadcast chain, such as broadcast networks, national cable networks and local TV stations, live or on demand. Nielsen has approximately 3,500 encoders in operation around the country. Those devices insert an inaudible audio ‘watermark’ into the content to help identify the originator and distributor, as well as the precise time of the broadcast.
Once they’ve agreed to participate in a panel, Nielsen households is visited by a field technician who installs a number of electronic devices to monitor every TV in the house. A ‘set meter’ is attached to each TV set to capture tuning information (what program is being watched), and a ‘people meter’ is attached to each TV set to capture viewing information (who is currently watching that program). During installation, the audio from the TV and other media devices attached to it (set-top box, DVD player, Roku, Apple TV, game console, etc.) is routed to the set meter so that we may determine the source of the content (which device is actively feeding content to the TV) and extract the Nielsen watermark from it. On the rare occasions when the watermark cannot be decoded, a backup system is in place to compute an audio ‘fingerprint’ of the signal on the fly (a unique identifier of what’s being played), and compare it to a battery of fingerprints captured at an independent media monitoring site nearby. Nielsen has nearly 1,000 such monitoring sites in operation around the country.
This innovative engineering architecture has earned Nielsen an Engineering Emmy Award and has been the foundation of the gold-standard TV ratings business in the U.S. for many years now, but it’s still fundamentally a wired system. It has many separate parts that need to be installed, configured, tested and connected together, and that complexity has an impact on operational and maintenance costs. Some installations are so difficult that they require multiple technician visits and time-consuming work to conceal wires and equipment. Some households find all of this to be too disruptive and when that happens, a new household with the same characteristics has to be recruited to fill the void, which adds dramatically to the cost of the system.
The Nano meter is the product of a careful analysis of all aspects of the current system: form design, pain points during installation and maintenance, communication, hardware and software architecture. By leveraging low energy computer engines (spurred by Internet of Things [IoT] developments) and integrated components, the Nano combines all measurement functions in a single compact box with a sleek modern design. In the Nano, the people meter and the set meter are integrated into a single device that can be powered right from a Smart TV’s USB port. Using Bluetooth and WiFi technology, it can communicate with other elements around the house—such as wearables, smartphones or even a new breed of streaming meters developed by Nielsen to capture over-the-top (OTT) and broadband content delivery. It comes with remote management capabilities to help reduce future field technician visits. It provides the same industry-proven content identification techniques (watermarking and fingerprinting) in a tighter package and has the capability to communicate with the back office via a dedicated cellular modem or the panelist’s own broadband connection—opening the door to real-time data collection.
The Nano meter is built for the future, but its benefits aren’t limited to advanced viewing environments or complex installation configurations: it’s expected to have a major impact on panel economics and cooperation rate (and therefore, ultimately, on data quality) once it rolls out to U.S. panels in 2017. We will review this engineering breakthrough in more detail in a full-length paper and examine in particular how it performs against important industry benchmarks. We will also explore how the engineering team at Nielsen is developing innovative solutions to measure the world of digital television and dynamic ads.
It’s an exciting time to be an engineer in media research!