ARUN RATH, HOST:
These days, a lot of people are watching TV shows without actually watching TV, thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. But that creates a problem for a business that's notoriously obsessed with ratings. How many people are watching online? The TV rating company Nielsen has created a new service to take on that problem. Here to talk about it is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Hi, Eric.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hey.
RATH: So what is this service, and how is it going reveal what people are watching on Netflix or Amazon?
DEGGANS: Well, Nielsen says it's developed this technology to detect when a specific show is being streamed or when it's being viewed more traditionally. It recognizes a unique audio signature in the TV episode so they can compare viewership between whatever the regular source is - like a broadcast network or a cable channel - and the viewership that comes in by streaming onto a TV set. So if a climate - if a client like FX asked them to look at "Sons Of Anarchy," for example, Nielsen could tell them what portion of the audience watched the show on FX and what portion watched the show by online streaming. Now, Nielsen says they can't really pinpoint the exact streaming service that might be displaying the content, but the client that owns the show is going to know which service has the rights to air it. And they can't yet track viewing on mobile devices.
RATH: What's the purpose of getting information in this way?
DEGGANS: Well, companies that make TV shows, like FX or CBS, they might sell Netflix or Amazon the rights to show old episodes of shows like "Big Bang Theory" or "Sons Of Anarchy." But they don't really know how many people actually watch the episodes on that service. And they don't know how much viewership on those services might be taking people away from their own channels. So Nielsen says that this new measurement could show if streaming episodes helps viewership or hurts viewership for shows on cable and broadcast. And they'll have a better sense of whether they're charging the right amount for those episodes to Netflix and Amazon and services like that.
RATH: Are they going to make those viewership figures available to the public?
DEGGANS: Probably in selective ways. They'll do special reports, or if the client, who owns the show, releases the information, it might come out that way. And Nielsen also told me they can't use the system to figure out viewership for original Netflix or Amazon shows, like "Orange Is The New Black" or "Transparent," unless those companies cooperate by giving them the audio signatures so they can track the episodes.
RATH: Now, we heard last month, Nielsen admitted a software problem led it to report inaccurate ratings for months for several broadcast shows. Is there concern this new measurement might have accuracy problems?
DEGGANS: Well, Nielsen's always faced criticism for its methods for - which involves sampling a sample group and then using math to tabulate and figure out what everybody's watching. But if sites like Netflix and Amazon don't reveal more information about their viewing, then Nielsen's numbers may be the only ones out there, just like regular TV ratings.
RATH: Now, this talk about Netflix quickly leads us to another story that's been making news this week - allegations about sexual assault and harassment in past years by Bill Cosby.
DEGGANS: That's right. A growing number of women have come forward, claiming he drugged and assaulted them. Netflix postponed a special devoted to Cosby's 77th birthday. Yesterday, NBC stopped development of a new series. TV Land also decided it was going to pull episodes of "The Cosby Show." And the Associated Press tried to ask him about these questions, and he didn't say much.
RATH: And, Eric, we're going to have to leave it there. Eric Deggans, NPR's TV critic. Thanks very much.
DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.