For decades, advertisers, agencies and the media have hung onto every Neilson rating to tell them who was watching television, what they were watching, and for how long. 

Others have tried to capture a piece of this ratings market with different measuring tools, technologies, or methodologies, but almost all of them have fallen by the wayside. But in the latest news, Neilson’s monopoly is being challenged once again; this time by a consortium consisting of several large media, marketing and advertising companies that have joined forces to develop an alternate source of audience measurement.

What is driving this initiative? According to news reports, it’s primarily a belief among the consortium participants that more detailed, precise, and reliable data and measurements are possible, particularly as more consumers turn to the Internet and mobile to watch TV. The fact that new technologies such as set-top boxes and digital video recorders enable data to be compiled more readily seems to be fueling the desire of the consortium members to take another crack at creating a competitor to Nielsen.

Interestingly, each category of participant within the consortium comes to this initiative with its own agenda and objective. In the case of media companies, TV networks for many years have frequently disputed the accuracy of Nielsen data in traditionally difficult areas of viewership measurement. Advertisers, similarly, have questioned Nielsen’s figures, though primarily in connection with determining the real, monetized value for all the money they spend to buy commercials on TV (estimated at $70 billion in 2009). Advertising agencies, naturally, are always seeking data to both guide and support their channel and network recommendations, especially if/when their clients take issue with the accuracy of the ratings presented by their agencies.

Why This Matters: Whether or not the consortium successfully achieves traction in its ability to produce a viable data product that is recognized across different but related industries is an idea that has seen many past iterations. Perhaps this effort, joined by a diverse group of interested parties, will work this time. If it does succeed, whether the consortium can grab market share from Nielsen is a difficult question to answer. Regardless, the mere fact that such a consortium exists demonstrates that changes are needed to the way industry tracks, understands and sells TV ads. As TV viewer habits and dynamics change, so too must the measuring stick that tracks and sells this medium. However, central to the consortium’s success is retrieving more robust information on consumer habits, and that means skirting the edge of privacy rights, inextricably linked to this initiative. This may well fuel a privacy debate that could turn out to be the Achilles Heel for both the consortium and Nielsen.