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Media Companies Struggle To Gauge TV Ratings In Age Of Netflix


Here to talk more about the struggle over ratings is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Hey there, Eric.


CORNISH: So Laura just mentioned how Symphony can track viewership of streamed shows. Can Nielsen actually do this technically?

DEGGANS: Yes, they can. Cable channels and broadcast networks have been pressuring Nielsen to come up with this data. And they feel that they've been slow in developing it. But earlier this year, Nielsen did reveal that it does have some viewership data on Netflix original shows like "Orange Is The New Black." but they're only sharing that information with select clients. They're not making it public.

So it's hard for journalists and critics and the public to know exactly who's watching what or to get a sense of how well they are measuring that viewership. So it's still a controversy inside the TV industry, but Nielsen can do it.

CORNISH: But what's Nielsen's history here when it comes to the technology, right? Is it something that they're good at developing?

DEGGANS: Well, they do have this history where, for example, they competed against Arbitron to provide ratings for radio listenership for a while. And then they wound up buying that company. So it's entirely possible that Nielsen, if it gets to the point where a rival company develops great new technology that they want to be part of their process, they could just buy it.

So there's a lot of options for a company as big as Nielsen that controls as much of the TV ratings game as they have. And there's an attempt by their customers to pressure them a little bit. There's an attempt by competitors to pressure them a little bit. And then we have to see what kind of choices they're going to make.

CORNISH: So when we're seeing traditional TV companies like NBC and A&E testing the technology from companies like Symphony, sounds like they're trying to even the score.

DEGGANS: Exactly. You know, if you're NBC and you're trying to sell advertising, you do that by getting ratings from Nielsen. So if Nielsen is the only place that gives you the ratings for these shows, then they can charge you as much as they can charge you.

If there's a competitor, that sort of reduces their power a little bit. It allows you some choice. And maybe you believe in that competitor's technology a little more than Nielsen. And it challenges Nielsen to be more on its game, too.

CORNISH: Now, I can understand why critics care about this and I can understand why the networks care about this, but why does it matter to me, the consumer?


CORNISH: When I'm watching, does it matter who else is watching the streaming services?

DEGGANS: Well, the superficial answer is that people like to watch what they know is popular. So if you have a sense that a bunch of other people are watching a show, you might want to check it out. But I think the deeper answer is that if Netflix or Amazon can control how our perception of how popular a TV show is - how many people are watching it - that controls the TV industry. So that controls what kind of shows the viewer ultimately gets to see. Right? And there's other people, actors and producers, they want to get paid. And they also want people to recognize that they're creating shows that are popular.

And beyond that, there's a question about privacy. How much does Netflix know about your particular viewership habits? Is there a way to press a button and find out exactly what you've watched? Because that information isn't public, we don't necessarily know what they know or how they know it or how they can grab it. So there's still a lot of open questions about how this works and a lot of pressure to make some of that data public.

CORNISH: That's NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, thanks so much.

DEGGANS: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.