Nielsen to Track TiVo Use

Nielsen Media Research is aiming to better understand how consumers use personal video recorders (PVR), having just completed installation of its tracking software into a handful of homes using TiVo systems.

But in spite of spending almost a year integrating its software into Alviso, Calif.-based TiVo’s devices, the researcher remains many months away from being able to report PVR activity in the same way that it reports television viewing, the company said.

Instead, New York-based Nielsen is aiming only to get a better feel for how consumers are using their TiVos to pause, save and watch recorded television programs — otherwise known as “time-shifting.”

“We’re in the business of television audience measurement, and people watch television in different ways,” said company spokesman Jack Loftus. “Time-shifting is one of them.”

To track what happens when families use a TiVo, Nielsen set up two, 10-household panels, with one group consisting of TiVo-using homes that hadn’t previously been a part of the researcher’s panel. By installing Nielsen’s software into their TiVos, the researcher gains the ability to observe experienced users of the devices.

Meanwhile, Nielsen also gave TiVo devices to a second panel of 10 households, which had already been participating in its panel. As a result, the firm also should be able to monitor the impact that using a PVR has on television-watching, since it can compare their activity with data from before they began using the device.

Loftus also said the company is looking to ink similar software implementation deals with other PVR makers, such as SONICblue and EchoStar .

However, Nielsen still has its hardest obstacle yet to face: figuring out how to process and report the data it gleans from such deals. For instance, while Nielsen reports overnight or next-day numbers for television shows, it’s undecided about how to categorize the activity of viewers who record a program only to watch it days later — or never at all.

“It’s an internal thing we’ve got to work on — it’s a new type of data stream and it doesn’t just naturally fit,” Loftus said. “It’s going to take some time. So, we’re not so much looking for ratings data, but audience behavioral activity — how do they interact with TiVo? How do they use time-shifting? The more we learn, the more information we can share with clients, and the more information they have to help determine how they want data reported.”

While Nielsen won’t be able to begin reporting immediately — it could be at least another year, Loftus said — the company is hoping that by making moves now, it will be in prime reporting position before PVRs become widespread.

“The phenomenon of time-shifting programs seems to be growing , and we’ve got to prepare for it,” he said. “Our business is measuring television viewing behavior, and we will find out how time-shifting devices affect viewing behavior. It’s very important for clients who see opportunities in the time-shifting environment and interactive television, and who are going to invest all that money in it that this activity can be measured.”

PVR devices are in use by only a slim minority of the television-watching public, and Nielsen said less than half of one percent of its 30,000-household panel own such devices. But concerned by the growing number of PVR-equipped households in its panel — and eager to develop a methodology for tracking the trend — Nielsen last year began working with PVR manufacturers to extend its TV-tracking technology to the new devices.

“The number’s growing,” Loftus said. “TiVo, [SONICblue] and EchoStar are beginning to market the product more aggressively, and [cable operators] are incorporating PVR capabilities and time-shifting into set-top boxes. In our sample homes, at first it was just a few, and now it’s as much as 80.”

The rollout of Nielsen-enabled TiVo devices comes amid growing concern that PVR devices — which allow for fast-forwarding through commercials, if not outright automated skipping — will cut into the efficacy of television advertising. A recent study, for instance, found that PVR users skip a disconcerting proportion of ads — up to 93 percent for some categories of advertisers.

Worries about the impact of PVRs contributed to a suit filed against SONICblue, which manufactures a PVR capable of automatically skipping ads, by major television networks and producers.

Nielsen’s integration with TiVo also follows new reports of success in developing ads that work in conjunction with PVRs. A recent TiVo promotion for “Austin Powers in Goldmember” — in which interactive ads were distributed via its system to users — resulted in more than than two-thirds of its users interacted with the ads, for an average of six minutes each.

“Advertisers can be successful in an environment where the viewer is in charge, if they deliver messages that are both relevant and entertaining,” said Brodie Keast, senior vice president and general manager of the TiVo Service.

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