Counting Every Last Eyeball

Nielsen's new ad ratings will change the feel of television as we know it

This is a column about media measurement, which is an extremely dull topic until you realize it largely dictates how more than $250 billion worth of advertising gets spent in the U.S. each year.

So it is a Very Big Deal that Nielsen Media Research, which holds a de facto monopoly over television ratings, will begin measuring the audiences of commercials as well as of programs. Or at least this is a Very Big Deal among media geeks. Many say Nielsen's initiative is too blunt a tool, since in its initial form it will provide only average ratings for commercials within an entire program. It won't measure specific commercial blocks -- "pods," in adspeak -- or individual commercials themselves.

This point rankles some key media buyers. Ratings for individual commercials are common in Europe and Asia, which makes this another instance in which the state of the art for American media trails the rest of the world. Still, Nielsen's ad ratings are one of many developments that may drag the U.S.'s traditional media measurement into the late 20th century, if not into the up-to-the-moment realm of the Web. Other next-generation moves promise more detailed data on magazine and radio audiences. Also lurking on the horizon:, a new way to measure print consumption and readers' "engagement" -- an ad-world buzzword of late -- and Project Apollo, another Nielsen service that will track, more or less, a consumer's complete in-home and out-of-home media usage.

All of which gets into the realm of quantum physics: How will the new observations affect what is being observed? Network heavies already admit Nielsen's commercial ratings data -- slated for a November debut -- will change how ads are bought and sold in next year's upfronts, that rite of spring in which deals are struck for much of a season's TV ad inventory. Expect many other textures of TV as we know it to change as well.

MOVIE COMMERCIALS STAY ON TV. Ad and TV execs say movie ads reliably keep viewers on the couch and tuned in. Since movie promos will juice overall commercial ratings, they make all inventory more valuable -- which means network suits will strive mightily to keep them. (As they'll strive to keep studio suits from finding this out, lest film executives press for better deals.)

THE AD ITSELF JUST GOT MORE IMPORTANT. Laura Desmond, the CEO of the media buying firm MediaVest USA, suggests it's no accident that non-U.S. commercials rake in awards at international ad gatherings: Ratings for commercials abroad force admakers to scrap for viewers just like programmers, thus spurring creativity.

BUT DON'T EXPECT ADS TO GET BETTER. "Good," in terms of high ratings right now, means squirmfests like America's Got Talent. And the last I checked, no one had brought back the fanatically acclaimed but poorly rated Arrested Development.

PITY THE POOR NETWORK EXECUTIVE. Media buyers are about 30 seconds away from demanding ad placement in specific pods, since the first and last spots are considered the best-watched. One top network executive points out that the only shows now structured like this are the Oscars and the Super Bowl. Selling individual ad placements on every program every night equals a logistical nightmare. Add on demands to make ad pods shorter and more frequent, which media buyers say will lead to better ratings. Now imagine telling the producers of 24 and Desperate Housewives that they have to rework episodes to accommodate such demands, and you almost start feeling sorry for the networks. Until they unleash...

THE RETURN OF SOAP OPERA NATION. The suits say ads are best viewed during live events and shows that layer on multiple cliff-hangers. This makes the new network MyNetworkTV's (NWS ) decision to spotlight short-run telenovela-style programs -- that is, ultra-sudsy, highly histrionic fare shown nightly instead of weekly -- look prescient. (As does that network's plan to wrap mini-storylines around its ad pods.) If the thought of a General Hospital-ized TV world horrifies you, well, did you really think better media measurement would result in better media?

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By Jon Fine

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