TV's ad future: To be continued

When I was eight or nine years old, and desperate to know why "McMillan and Wife" was no longer on TV, my dad said matter-of-factly, "I guess the Nielsen ratings weren't high enough." My first thought was, who is this Nielsen, and how do I rescue Susan St. James from his evil clutches?

My dad then showed me the list of top 20 Nielsen-rated shows that appeared once a week in our local newspaper, and tried to explain to me how the Nielsen system worked, and how it was based on the TV-watching habits of a bunch of sample households. He started talking about TV commercials, and how companies decide which shows their advertisements accompanied. I didn't really understand any of it, and all I really got out of it was that our household was not a Nielsen household.

It's more than 30 years later. My dad is gone, and I'm about the age he was when he sought to explain the Nielsen system to me. I have much less hair atop my head than I did when I was nine-years-old, but more on my face (and, sadly, elsewhere). I'd guess that I actually watch more TV than I did when I was nine, since backyard baseball and nightly games of chase no longer get in the way. But, alas, I'm still not a member of a mythical Nielsen household. And, Nielsen somehow after all these years still remains the ratings standard and the system at the center of TV ad market economics and decisions.

Some of the technical hurdles that Canoe Ventures has encountered in its effort to roll out advanced advertising in the cable TV arena (see this post) make me wonder if Nielsen Media Research will ever be challenged in this regard. Amid the rise of cable TV and other alternatives to traditional broadcast, several would-be successors to Nielsen have emerged, and advancing set-top box technology also suggests new, more encompassing and accurate methods of collecting viewer data and presenting ads to TV audiences. But, as Multichannel News noted in a recent cover story, technology mismatches and a lack of standards are keeping the industry from advancing beyond the traditional Nielsen method.

Then, there are the privacy concerns about the processes behind more targeted ads. Coming into this year, it seemed as if telco TV providers and their technology vendors were ready to mollify the concerns of consumers who had been blind-sided by poorly-explained targeted ad trials in the broadband Internet sector. Yet, consumer privacy continues to be a hot-button issue for legislators, and it is becoming clear that such concerns won't be so easily soothed whether the targeted ad audience is on the Internet or watching TV at home.

The overall condition of things makes me think of the tantalizing old TV cliffhanger promise: To be continued. Three little words that everyone hated because it meant waiting until next week, or even next season, to find out what happened. Nielsen's challengers have their work cut out for them, and for now, consider this episode... to be continued.