NEW YORK: Over the past several decades The Nielsen Company, in its various incarnations, has dominated (monopolised, some might say) America's TV audience measurement business.

Only the piratical Brits at AGB back in the late '80s came near to challenging Nielsen in its own backyard with their [then] new People Meters – only to be seen off in a bitter war of attrition that resulted in AGB's eventual demise.

Now another contingent of marauding Brits, this time from TNS Media Research, have thrown down the gauntlet to Nielsen, seemingly oblivious to the oft-quoted maxim: "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." 

On this occasion, however, the invaders have chosen a US ally in the shape of DirecTV and 100,000 of its all-seeing, all-recording set-top boxes. 

The new venture, branded TNS DirecTView, will offer data garnered from a far larger viewing sample than Nielsen, which relies on a panel of just 14,000 households nationwide.

The allies claim that the larger size of their sample renders the research more stable, offering advertisers and agencies data of a higher level of accuracy, especially with smaller-audience channels.

The Nielsen system is dependent on a human interface (its panel uses a measurement device), whereas TNS will access data automatically from set-top boxes, second-by-second compared to Nielsen's minute-by-minute reporting.

TNS DirecTView also records which TV programs and commercials were viewed live, and which were time-shifted via the DVR.

Not surprisingly, media agencies are receptive.

Tracey Scheppach, svp/ video innovations director at Starcom Worldwide probably reflects the views of many in the media-buying biz.

"I think this is the year to really improve TV's accountability. We shouldn't continue to justify doing $70 billion of business off of 12,000 homes when [additional] data exist. So let's explore it."

However, there are flaws in the TNS offering. Unlike Nielsen's user-controlled device, it does not register when a viewer leaves the room; nor which commercials were missed.

Also, the set-top boxes are mainly located in statistically narrow – and nationally unrepresentative – regions such as New York and Los Angeles. Unlike Nielsen's panel which, although one-seventh that of TNS's, is distributed countrywide.

As to persona privacy, George Shababb, chief operating officer at TNSMR, assures that homes participating in the set-top box project will not be identifiable - although the household demographics will be available to advertisers and agencies, plus data on income, education level and working status.

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff