Given massive changes in television viewership, including a growing number of people who don’t use a TV set to watch it, the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) suggests it’s time to move away from measuring ‘TV households’ and towards ‘TV-accessible households.’

This article is part of the May 2023 Spotlight US series, ‘The upfronts – what they mean in 2023’ Read more

The latest ARF DASH TV universe study shows 4% of US homes now consume TV without owning a TV set, thanks to TV access via broadband internet. Yet the industry continues to use the ‘TV household’ – meaning a household with at least one TV set – as the primary basis of measurement, which risks underrepresenting viewership.

Just as we see the digital advertising ecosystem shifting away from cookies, and toward people-based targeting and measurement approaches, the TV industry, as well, must adjust to its ever-shifting future. And there’s no better time to discuss this than during the upfronts season in the US, when the media and advertising worlds come together to chart the course ahead.

Making measurement more accessible

If you’re not familiar with DASH, it is a comprehensive, syndicated TV universe study that records, in granular detail, how US households connect to and consume TV, use digital devices, and interact with and share streaming media and e-commerce accounts. Conducted each year in partnership with the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, and fielded in two waves, DASH is based on a national probability sample of more than 10,000 American households to ensure reliability and projectability.

Launched in 2021 and now in-field for its third year, DASH is designed to provide an industry standard data set for universe estimation, calibration of ACR (Automatic Content Recognition) and STB (Set-top Box) data, and assignment of viewership, devices and accounts to households and individuals. DASH is also a repository of insight on the behavior of US TV consumers.

The latest DASH research showed that a significant and growing number of consumers no longer use a TV set to watch TV.

The latest release, covering the full year 2022, shows that penetration of broadband-only households, including those subscribing to virtual multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs), like YouTube Live, rose from 25% to 31% year over year. Younger audiences are driving the trend to TV-set-less households. Fourteen percent of households headed by 18–34-year-olds do not own a TV set, and a stunning 39% of persons 18–24-years-olds living alone use devices only to access TV.

It’s also noteworthy that this trend toward viewing on mobile devices applies to households that do own a TV set, across both age and marital status. More than 40% of consumers with TV sets reported watching professionally produced programming on a device the previous day.

Why ‘TV households’ and ACR data need upgrading

For these reasons, the industry needs to consider pivoting away from the traditionally defined ‘TV household’ as the basis of TV measurement, and towards ‘TV-accessible households.’ As it sounds, TV-accessible households are households in which viewers can access TV by any means, whether with a standard TV set or another device. A shift to TV-accessible households establishes a basis that accounts for all the possible ways a user within a household can consume TV content, a basis that is more representative of actual TV viewership.

As Andrea Zapata, EVP of Ad Sales, Research and Measurement Insights at Warner Bros. Discovery said at Programmatic I/O back in October, “TV measurement should be about counting audiences and doing it accurately.” Of course, there are systems to update and devices to measure, but the patterns of behavior among younger viewers are showing us what the video landscape of the future looks like.

Traditional panel methodology, representing a percentage of all the households that could potentially watch a TV show, has dominated TV for 70-some-odd years. But panels alone cannot keep up with this fragmented TV consumption, especially on a local market level.

Many of the new measurement companies are using ACR data or ACR data in addition to return path data. These big data sets offer greater stability but require panels to adjust for the biases inherent in each. Panels are also required to model who is watching the TV set. And in no case do they provide data on viewing on devices.

Additionally, as the ARF’s latest DASH report shows, many households with a smart TV capturing ACR data have at least one other brand of TV set in the home, which means there is viewing in the household not represented in the ACR data. The demographics of device viewers also differ from those of TV set viewers. These dynamics further dilute the representativeness of ACR streams and make calibration with a reference standard like DASH or metered panels essential.

One of the greatest needs in the industry today is for comprehensive cross-platform measurement. Ad buyers might know which platform their ad ran on, but not the channel, network or program, which impacts media planning and reporting. The broader implication is that advertisers need help understanding which TV buys worked and which did not, if they met campaign goals, and how to optimize their ad budgets.

Short-term pain for long-term gain

Neither panels nor ACR alone can solve cross-device measurement challenges in TV.

However, there is a short-term issue with this shift that many are already aware of. Moving from TV households to TV-accessible households would effectively increase the denominator that TV ratings are derived from. Impressions would likely rise, but average ratings would fall somewhat because the newly included households watch less broadcast and cable than the traditional TV households.

But ratings are already being lost by not measuring viewing on devices within the universe of TV households. Measurement must evolve to include viewing on sets and devices in all households. Viewing on a tablet in a TV household is no different than viewing on a tablet in a TV-accessible household.

As viewers of TV content, we all know how much our habits have changed, and it’s high time for measurement to change with them.