Earlier this year, in a presentation at the ATX Television Festival in Austin, Texas TV writer Kyle Killen (Lonestar) brilliantly explained the history and current failure of the American TV rating system, with the big money quote being “Nielsen is a ruler in a world where we now need a microscope.” Thankfully, his presentation was recorded as part of the Nerdist Writers Panel Podcast, and I described all of it elsewhere on the site. In looking at the future of TV, Killen concluded:
Whether or not Nielsen buys one of its new competitors or someone knocks them off our approach to understanding TV and audiences and advertising is going to become a lot more like it is on the web, data-driven and hyper-personal. One of the things that really lets us exploit that is the other thing that scares networks, and that is streaming. For as nice as the DVR is it is basically a souped-up VCR, but what it tells us is that people want to watch what they want to when they want. If you embrace that mentality by embracing streaming, a lot of the problems that the DVR creates go away. You don’t have to guess who’s watching your stuff on Hulu. They know exactly who’s watching which lets them sell different commercials to a 65-year-old man and to a 18-year-old girl who are both watching the same show at the same time. You can sell ads for weekend movies on a Thursday night even if what you’re watching on Thursday night is a Monday night show from 5 weeks ago. All of that stuff stops mattering. So, streaming is going to be the savior of ad-based TV, not the death of it.
However, while Hulu shares its data with the networks Netflix and Amazon are notorious dens of secrecy. When Amazon’s CEO boasts that Transparent is the most streamed original program in Amazon Prime’s history we mostly smile and nod, knowing that while that sounds nice it doesn’t mean a dang thing because we have no idea how many people watch any of their shows. We don’t know because they don’t tell us, and they don’t tell us because they don’t have to. That’s fine. It’s not like we’re owed that information. It sure makes life harder on Hollywood journalists who have to figure these type of things out and seek to provide some form of context to their readers, but, eh, we’re already hooked on Netflix by this point anyway. What do we care how many people actually watch Orange Is the New Black or the new Chelsea Peretti stand-up special (One of the Greats)? The more important thing is that we watch them and like them (or not).
This isn’t about us, though. The people who really want a peek at Netflix and Amazon data figures are the people negotiating contracts to do business with them, be it licensing old shows for their ever increasing library or creating original programming. For those people, Nielsen is now promising to give them answers, announcing plans to begin measuring viewing habits on subscription online services like Netflix and Amazon. According to The Wall Street Journal (via THR):
Nielsen’s measurements will not yet include mobile device views for streaming series, but the company plans to use the content’s audio to identify which shows are being streamed. Nielsen plans to tabulate the data for clients, media companies like traditional TV networks and studios, to see how their acquired content is performing on services like Netflix and Amazon. This could have a big effect on negotiations for streaming rights and bundles down the line. “Our clients will be able to look at their programs and understand: Is putting content on Netflix impacting the viewership on linear and traditional VOD?” Nielsen senior vp Brian Fuhrer told WSJ.
This sounds like a surprisingly progressive move for Nielsen, a huge step foward that will potentially demystify Netflix and Amazon Prime and give leverage in contract negotiations back to actors and writers for original programming and content copyright holders for licensed content. However, the part I am confused about is as follows: Do Netflix and Amazon know that Nielsen is planning on doing this? Well, clearly they do now, but when Nielsen is talking about having to use the audio to identity which shows are being streamed that seems a lot like they’re doing this on their own. Both Netflix and Amazon have been so rigidly secretive about their viewership figures that it’s hard to imagine them cooperating with Nielsen on this.