Nielsen is moving the February 2009 sweeps to March to avoid the "potential disruptions" associated with the switch to digital. It will also begin testing ratings collection on digital-only stations in December 2008.
In a memo to clients Wednesday, Nielsen told them of those and other plans it is undertaking to "ensure the accuracy of television-audience estimates throughout the DTV-transition period." TV stations use sweeps numbers to set rates for advertisers going forward.
Nielsen will continue to provide overnight ratings in metered markets as usual for February 2009 and anticipates no changes to national ratings reporting.
Nielsen's action plan for rating station signals is geared toward two constituencies: homes in its sample that make changes to TV equipment, such as buying new sets or converter boxes; and TV stations "changing their signal distributions," which essentially means all of them.
Nielsen said it cannot "proactively" raise the topic of the DTV transition with its panel households, since the sample is supposed to be representative of the general population. But field representatives will be trained to answer questions about the transition if panelists raise them on their own.
Nielsen added that it would start contacting station engineers in August about what changes they will be making regarding digital transmission and when they are going to make them. The company pointed out that the Federal Communications Commission will allow some stations to pull the plug on analog up to 90 days before the Feb. 17, 2009, deadline (to avoid requiring workers to scale towers in the dead of harsh winters, for example).
Starting before August would not be efficient, it said, because many stations have yet to finalize plans.
The company is also working on a backup plan that would employ cable to measure TV-station ratings. "Nielsen currently monitors broadcast signals over the air," the company told its clients, although it was clearly preaching to the choir. "Since full-power analog signals will be going off the air, we may be able to connect our older analog monitoring sites to cable. Cable systems will downconvert broadcast stations’ digital signals to analog after the transition."
Nielsen will take advantage of the early switchover by some TV stations to kick the tires on rating digital-TV signals. In December, its field auditors will pick a sample of stations that have already converted to digital-only to use for testing, although if it cannot field a large enough sample, it will have to test after the Feb. 17, 2009, switchover.
Stations in Nielsen metered markets are already encoding their digital signals, so for them, it should be sinply a case of continuing what they are already doing.
Those are the plans, Nielsen said, but they could change. "Our plans will be adjusted over time, if necessary, as facts become clearer," it said. "This includes, potentially, limiting the permissible uses of overnight data if Nielsen determines that the quality of the data does not meet the sample standards that we normally apply."