Nielsen Viewer Assignment – Three Action Steps to Consider Right Now

Effective December 31, 2015 demographic data reported by Nielsen in all but the top 25 TV markets will be unaccredited. The move follows Nielsen's decision to drop paper diaries -- a nearly century-old measurement method -- for estimating the demographic composition of audiences in its 31 "set-metered" market ratings and all 154 diary only markets to begin using new, as-yet-unaccredited methods for calculating who is watching television. In place of the paper diaries, Nielsen has introduced a new method, a mathematical modeling technique that Nielsen calls “viewer assignment” that extrapolates audience estimates.

In a nutshell, the viewer assignment method mathematically models and ascribes audience estimates for non-people meter markets with data generated from its people meter sample.  The new viewer assignment method is treating the behaviors of people in one sample -- the national people meter respondents -- in a way that is representative of viewers in non-people meter households. This new methodology is meant to derive demographic data for stations in smaller markets from larger local people-meter markets, some located far away.

We could use this space and reams of paper to discuss the pros and cons of this approach – but we won’t.  Viewer Assignment is here and now the question is what does your station do about it. 

Here are three key items and action steps your station needs to take now that Viewer Assignment is here.

1.      If you are in a former diary market – your news producers and managers need to quickly move to producing as if you were in a metered market.  Understanding the ins and outs of meters, quarter hour ratings and how to produce for them is not a new idea in some larger Top 50 markets.  But for the bulk of stations in markets 65 and above – these strategies have generally not been employed or taught. 

The main element producers and news managers will have to understand is the idea of trying to win both quarter hours in a half hour newscast.  Years of research show that invariably the final 15 minutes of a newscast (or second quarter hour) drops off and negatively affects the overall average rating for the entire newscast. 

All of the consultants at SmithGeiger have extensive experience in producing and understanding meter management.  If your station’s news managers and producers have not previously had a meter management course – now is the time to have your consultant deliver one on their next visit.

2.      All markets will now be receiving ratings on at least a monthly basis.  So the philosophy of creating content, Targeted Special Reports (TSRs) or sweeps pieces four times a year is another change.  In effect, buyers in even the smallest markets will have new, fresh data each month (if not more frequently) in which to gauge the performance of all local stations in the market.  Depending on how fast buyers move to using this data ultimately determines how quickly you need to produce for a year round ratings periods.

The best steps are to start planning right now.  The most successful stations will have a minimum of 2-3 high profile, compelling stories each and every week.  Ideally, these are going to be produced at the same level of quality that you are used to producing those pieces that have traditionally run in the older ratings periods.  So now is the time to look around the room and figure out what resources you can pull together to continually be producing these “sweeps” pieces for air each week.  We would suggest the absolute best scenario is producing four of these pieces running 2:30 – 3:30 each week.  In a metered environment many of these stations will take these high profile pieces and combine them with weather to win the second quarter hour of most newscasts.  Oh, one other thing.  Marketing departments need to gear up to produce sweeps quality promos for these pieces as well. 

3.      It will be important for all department heads as well as your station’s research director to know and understand where the bulk of your “viewer assignment” is coming from.  Briefly put, Nielsen will be pulling the bulk of the “viewer assignment” data from the 2-3 closest LPM markets in your region. In Nielsen speak that means that Nielsen will look for “mirror families” - who mostly live in other markets but watch similar shows and have similar backgrounds - to estimate demographic viewing habits for stations in your market.  So if you are a CBS affiliate in Charleston, SC – it will be important to understand how the CBS affiliate in Atlanta (WGCL) and the CBS affiliate in Charlotte (WBTV) perform in their market.  Theoretically speaking, their performance is going to have a large impact on your own ratings. 

The bottom line as of today is there are a lot of unanswered questions about the new system.  It will take several months for the new data to shake out and then for the experts to really gain an understanding of how each market’s ratings (outside the LPM markets) will be impacted.  Stay close to your SmithGeiger strategist for more information as this plays out.