The Trouble With Set-Top Data


Set-top data, to some, is an untapped gold mine of information.

Instead of extrapolated guesstimates on viewing behavior, the theory is, you can get exact, nearly real-time metrics on what people watch — "second by second," in the phraseology favored in the Madison Avenue pitches by the likes of TiVo and Google

Set-top measurement is a big part of Canoe Ventures’ mission, and there’s general excitement about the idea in the industry. (For those who get excited about this sort of thing.) Take, for example, today’s announcement that NDS will work with TNS to sell an audience-measurement solution to video providers that aggregates set-top statistics.

But of course, there are some gotchas.

I met yesterday with Jed Meyer, SVP of Nielsen DigitalPlus, the research company’s unit that is working with the biggest MSOs, satellite operators and telco TV providers to collect and analyze set-top data. Nielsen has announced a trial with Charter’s L.A. system to collect set-top data.

Meyer believes set-top data can be extremely useful — but that it’s not some sort of Holy Grail.

For one thing, he pointed out, digital cable penetration rates are somewhere around 60%, so set-top data isn’t really a universal picture of even one provider’s viewing population. Also even if cable systems are two-way capable, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re collecting the data from their set-tops.

Yes, Meyer works for Nielsen and would have an interest in preserving the status quo of the TV industry relying on its panel-based ratings. But his main point is that set-top measurement remains a nascent field. 

Meyer relayed the story of an (unnamed) MSO that was delivering data for 30,000 set-top boxes from one of its systems to Nielsen. Suddenly, one day the data went down to nine set-tops, he said. "Nine thousand?" I asked. No — nine. Then, just as inexplicably, the number later in the week went to 22,000 STBs. The cable company still doesn’t know what the glitch was.

Which again leads me to ponder the big challenge Canoe has ahead in making six MSOs row together. And unfortunately, it won’t be feasible to give everybody brand-new paddles.