Do regular TV viewers get counted?
September 2, 2010 11:09 AM   Subscribe

If someone watches TV (cable or satellite, digital or analog), does the provider know that someone is watching? I.e., does a non-Neilsen family who skips the ads actually benefit the TV station they are watching? How about DVRs or VOD? How about digital radio?
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 to Technology (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: There are ways to monitor the usage of DVR functionality in most set-top boxes, but that information is not generally used to measure audience ratings for the purposes of generating advertising revenue. For the most part, it is the Nielsen rating that determines 'the viewership'.

Nielsen uses diaries and some electronic metering systems that are triggered by the embedded signal in the TV broadcast.

Radio (analog & digital) is measured in a similar way with diaries and some electronic metering by embedded audio watermarks.

DVRs like a Tivo have extremely detailed information about viewing habits which is sold (anonymized) to corporations willing to pay.

VOD, same as DVRs, but the data is held by the service provider only (think Time Warner or Comcast), not sold on the open market.
posted by Argyle at 11:21 AM on September 2, 2010

Best answer: There are a few ways that providers can find out what you're currently watching, but it's a different question on whether they actually collect or make use of that data.

There's no backchannel at all on digital radio, either terrestrial or satellite, so it's up to the Neilsen listeners for that. Same with typical satellite TV, but some newer boxes can hook up to the internet for VOD, so there's the potential for a backchannel. Digital cable has a backchannel, but like satellite, it's still broadcasting all channels at all times to all subscribers, so they can be tuned into without cable company interference. Who knows if your box actually sends that data back, though.

One thing that's different, though, are IPTV services like AT&T's Uverse. The set-top box specifically requests a channel when it's tuned into, and AT&T's equipment then sends that channel's stream to your box. They could easily log such data.
posted by zsazsa at 11:26 AM on September 2, 2010

Best answer: So a few questions - is it possible to know what people are watching. My experience is with TV so I'm sticking to that.

Yes - your guide or some other software could monitor your viewing and know what you are watching and when, this includes DVR and VOD.

Can they get these metrics back via a back channel - yes, actually most satellite has had a back channel for some time (mostly by "phoning home" over a phone line late at night - if you hooked it up)

All that being said, PII (Personally Identifiable Information) is pretty tightly regulated by the FCC. So while this information can be collected - the dissemination of this info is carefully controlled - which severely limits its use (ie it can't be used for ratings).
posted by bitdamaged at 11:50 AM on September 2, 2010

Best answer: Comcast can and does collect viewing information from pretty much all of their digital set-top boxes. I'm not sure if they sell the data, but I'm sure they use it in deciding which channels to provide, and they're big enough that they influence what shows get produced.

DirecTV DVRs work just fine without an Internet or modem connection and there's no real benefit for the user to hook one up.

Tivo usually does require an Internet connection, which means it's probably sending data back.
posted by miyabo at 12:04 PM on September 2, 2010

Best answer: IANYL, but it's probably not PII in the way that they are retaining it or storing it (from that link - "the term “personally identifiable information” does not include any record of aggregate data which does not identify particular persons").

My understanding is that media industry companies obtain and make extensive use of this data to see what people watch and how they watch it.
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 12:09 PM on September 2, 2010

Best answer: My understand is that most DVR's can track you, but they don't unless you've specifically opted in. As for the Nielsen family watching ads vs not this is actually a common debtate within the industry called the L3 vs C3 debate (search for 'L3 Nielsen' or 'C3 Nielsen' - some background here . It's essentially a debate over whether to use households that view shows up to three days after broadcast or just those that view the ads up to 3 days after broadcast. Additional data here on - a great site incidentally.
posted by jourman2 at 12:26 PM on September 2, 2010

posted by jourman2 at 12:26 PM on September 2, 2010

Best answer: Regarding miyabo's comment about TiVo, the internet connection is chiefly used to download both program updates and the television schedules, although I'm certain that they do gather information about what you're watching. I've seen several articles that referenced the most watched commercial during the Super Bowl for TiVo users.
posted by BrianJ at 12:33 PM on September 2, 2010

Set top box data is collected, but its still in its relative infancy with how it is being sold. Think of it like this: The net was built with data collection being its principal device. Cable has had to retrofit a system. As such, the demographic information has peeled itself away from surveyors like Nielsen and has begun to sell its own privately collected information - although it isn't full understood.

Where advertising is moving to is the personalization and specific targetization towards you - and the cable company will have that information at the end of the day. In the world of the future, your internet cookies will follow you back to your TV and from your TV to your computer - as one seemless profile, tied partially by two the MAC address on both your router and the MAC address on your cable box.

The cross sectional database information will expand their information as to the types of TV programming you watch, the advertisements you respond to, whether you look up a website as advertised on TV, and ultimately whether you purchase a product. Net Televisions, Facebook, Widgets, Geolocation and all these "free" social media tools are making this process of tracking you even easier (or harder - depending if you are the data miner being asked to make some sense out of this information). This is the future of what is called media mix modeling. (Add in the terms "real time bidding", where advertisers will bid specifically on how much serving you the advertisement is worth to them in some sort of microsecond duration auction in which we find out that our exact worth is about $0.07 per advertisement. Note: that number is made up, but probably not too far off.)

And yes, this is all kinds of Orwellian. No, they don't want your information specifically, they just want to help you make an informed buying decision and have you make the decision to buy. Really though, prices and advertising levels will eventually stabilize and those who can afford you will show you their ads.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:20 PM on September 2, 2010

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