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How Long Before Every Broadcaster Dumps Ratings For Impressions?

The short answer to that headline’s question is, probably not very long, if they have any instinct for survival.

Nexstar, the biggest owner of broadcast stations in the country, announced this week that it’s dumping traditional ratings for a new cost-per-impressions system. That approach, developed with comScore, will include all the views its shows receives across digital, mobile, streaming and, oh, yeah, traditional linear broadcast.

“This strategic move represents the next step in the natural evolution of audience measurement,” said Nexstar’s President, Tim Busch, in a press release. “Our sales force will be able to talk to all advertisers—big or small, national or local—in an informed, fact-based manner about maximizing the reach and effectiveness of their spending across every available media channel and every viewer will be counted, no matter where or when they watch. In addition, advertisers will be able to universally target their customers regardless of the distribution platform and monitor the results through unduplicated audience measurement.”

It’s easy to be cynical about this as a some last-ditch grab at pumping up falling ratings. But really, the better response is, it’s about damned time, and when is everyone else in broadcast at least jumping aboard with their own approach? The industry as a whole needs to find a better way to measure its reach; Nexstar just went out and did something.

Obviously, all of the old-school broadcasters needed to do something. ATSC 3.0, the new broadcast standard, promises to provide some nifty new capabilities, like addressable ads, more channels in the same amount of spectrum, and data services.

But that process is taking time, and depends on uptake of new chipsets in consumer electronics and by the broadcasters themselves. Many analysts believe the inherent technological limits of ATSC 3.0, and the time it’s taking to roll out, will ensure it’s never more than a niche improvement for a still powerful but increasingly marginalized sector.

In the meantime, other opportunities await. Nexstar is taking one of them, trying to create a measurement model that takes in all the ways that a station’s signal might be consumed in the fractured multi-platform future we’re now stumbling into.

It gives Nexstar outlets a chance to be more than just a traditional broadcast station, and to actually try to measure more comprehensively the broader impact those channels have across all those platforms.

Nielsen has been trying to evolve as well. Most recently, it began measuring Amazon Prime video viewership, an important step in understanding what’s being seen where in the streaming OTT world. It matters even if Prime still isn’t really doing advertising (though, really, how long do you think that continues, given the existence of the IMDB Channel, Amazon’s Channels offering, and other half steps Amazon already has taken toward video advertising?).

For its part, Nielsen issued a statement saying it still had a relationship with Nexstar, and also supported a move to impressions more generally.

“This is consistent with how national buys are done and enables cross platform comparability,” Nielsen said. “The move to impressions is also about capturing all audiences in an increasingly fragmented environment. Today if a rating is below .04 it rounds to zero. Moving to impressions shows the actual audience rather than leaving it on the cutting room floor.”

Nielsen asserted that it had “always provided clients with impressions and they are the foundation for all of our calculations. That said, ratings, reach and frequency will still have a strong place in the planning and programming processes. The need to know unique audience is critical to the marketplace.”

And it’s relatively true that other broadcasters aren’t standing still.

Sinclair has pushed ATSC 3.0 as hard as anyone, and even commissioned a chip design that could be built into smartphones so they can receive broadcast signals, emergency notifications, and all those potential data services.

Sinclair also spent something in the neighborhood of $14 billion to buy, build or partner on 23 regional sports networks, most of them former Fox holdings that Disney acquired but couldn’t keep.

I’m told Sinclair will probably co-located local news operations with those sports networks in all the major markets where it currently doesn’t have reach (to start, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago). With that modest incremental investment, they can fully implement a hybrid cable-broadcast-online focus on ad-supported live news and sports similar to what New Fox is trying to do.

The bigger question is what the rest of the broadcasters will do as their legacy business continues to decline. Using metrics that attempt to capture all their reach, not just what they’ve been doing since the 1920s, seems like a priority. Expect to see a lot of other stations groups play Follow The Leader behind Nexstar.