ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
How do you track who's watching what in the era of streaming TV? That's the question we're asking this week on All Tech Considered.
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SHAPIRO: Nielsen has dominated this market for decades. TV networks, advertisers, critics and show producers still rely on Nielsen ratings to see which shows are popular and which are flops. Now that more people are streaming programs through services like Amazon Prime and Netflix, there's a lot Nielsen doesn't capture. NPR's Laura Sydell tells us about a new company that's trying to take its place.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Among TV executives, there's a joke. When a family sits down in the living room and watches a show at the time it's scheduled, that's TV as God intended it. But that just isn't how people watch anymore.
KEVIN SEAL: We do not follow the appointment-viewing-wait-for-the-show-to-come-on-at-a-given-time schedule.
SYDELL: Kevin Seal and his family have cut the cord, meaning they've dropped their cable subscription. Seal lives in San Francisco with his wife and 6-year-old son. They only watch programs that stream over the internet from services like Amazon and Netflix.
SEAL: We watch a lot of Netflix programming. Recently "Black Mirror" was the one that we devoured in its entirety.
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JESSICA BROWN FINDLAY: (As Abi) This cognitive behavioral thing, it realigns your thinking to pick healthy food.
SYDELL: But if the producers of the show, a British-based company, want to know just how popular it is in the U.S., they're out of luck. And so is Kevin Seale. He has no idea how many other people liked the show. Even though streaming should make it easier to track who's watching, Netflix doesn't release those numbers. Netflix says the number isn't important because it doesn't sell advertising. It sells subscriptions.
So as long as its content keeps bringing in viewers, that's what matters to Netflix and also to Amazon, which doesn't release its numbers. But they're important to the people who sell programs to Netflix or Amazon, says media consultant Bill Harvey. The people who make shows like "Black Mirror" are at a disadvantage in price negotiations with the company that distributes the programs, say, Netflix.
BILL HARVEY: The price paid by distributor to a program source is less based on the assumption that the audience is smaller.
SYDELL: And Harvey says the companies that make the programming for TV Also don't look as good in the eyes of Wall Street. Harvey says according to Nielsen's measurement system, overall TV viewership is down. But if you were really to measure how much TV is being watched on streaming, that may not be true.
HARVEY: Those younger people are doing less and less of the old-fashioned TV viewing and much more of the new-fangled TV viewing that Nielsen isn't measuring.
SYDELL: And this is where a new company called Symphony comes in. It's a startup that says it has a way to accurately measure the ratings of shows on Amazon and Netflix even without cooperation from the companies.
Symphony has a sample of over 15,000 people. They download the Symphony app on their phones and it runs as long as their phone is on. Let's say I was one of the testers. I like a British sci-fi show called "Humans" about a company that releases totally human-looking robots.
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PIXIE DAVIES: (As Sophie Hawkins) What if she's not pretty? Can we change her if she's not pretty?
TOM GOODMAN-HILL: (As Joe Hawkins) Just follow the instructions on the tablet, and you'll have it configured in no time.
SYDELL: Charles Buchwalter, CEO of Symphony, says the app works like Shazam does for music. Each TV program has a code that the app can identify from the audio.
CHARLES BUCHWALTER: And so if Laura is watching "Humans," the app knows that this is the audio code that Laura's listening to. And then we are matching that to a reference database of all programs out there - says, Laura's watching "Humans."
SYDELL: And Symphony would know even if I watch "Humans" on my phone or tablet. That's very important information to NBCUniversal, which uses Symphony. Alan Wurtzel is the senior vice president of research.
ALAN WURTZEL: These folks have migrated to watching a great deal of video content on non-Nielsen-measured devices like smartphones, like tablets. And when you re-aggregate all those numbers, they basically come right back to where they've always been.
SYDELL: Meaning he says that Americans watch as much TV as they ever have. Well, he might be right. But like just about everybody else, he doesn't really have enough data to prove it. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
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