Smile for the Camera: How Gadgets Can Better Measure TV Ratings

Facial recognition technology and other devices may be the future of how television networks and advertisers find out just who's watching what and when.

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Picture this: A family of four squishes together on their living room couch ready to gawk at their favorite reality show. As Dad flips on the television to find the channel, a small camera mounted on the set turns on, too, identifying and recording whether he’s watching alone, or whether Mom and the kids are tuning in as well.

It’s not happening anytime soon, but facial recognition technology and other devices may be the future of how television networks and advertisers find out just who’s watching what and when. Media research company Nielsen is working on a number of changes to its television ratings methodology in the next few months — including expanding measurement of streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu by fall 2013 and tablet habits by the end of the year — but whether cameras could one day provide new metrics is already in consideration.

The arrival of facial recognition in home TV viewing doesn’t seem that far-fetched in terms of the technology, but the public’s receptiveness to these kinds of methods has a longer, more complicated history. If having a camera recording in your living room sounds a bit like big brother is watching, you’re not alone. Brian Fuhrer, Nielsen’s senior vice president of national and cross-platform television audience measurement, says over the past two decades there has been considerable pushback against the use of measurement techniques that record audience data so passively — until now.

“The big change is now with cameras and everything built into so many different consumer electronic devices, it’s less of us pushing that and [more] making it as easy as possible for panelists to identify themselves,” Fuhrer tells TIME. “It’s something we’re looking at in terms of an R&D standpoint, and we want to be ahead of the technology when our panelists are ready to accept it.”

(MORE: Nielsen to Begin Counting Online Viewership)

Nielsen currently measures household viewing through its Nielsen People Meter, a small box connected to a television that has different settings for each member of the family. By logging their viewing with the push of a button, Nielsen family members provide information about household viewing by age and gender that contributes to weekly TV ratings. It’s a system that’s more accurate than a self-recorded diary — the device can remind home viewers if they forgot to log in — and it’s far less labor-intensive, but facial recognition technology could make the process even simpler. Just sit back, relax and let Nielsen do the rest.

The television industry already has a good idea of who’s watching what, so there’s little chance that facial recognition technology could, for example, shockingly reveal that the millions of people tuning into A&E’s ratings juggernaut Duck Dynasty are actually primarily pre-teen girls — it’s about streamlining the process. But having a camera hooked up to a television opens up possibilities about gathering information you can’t get with just the push of a button, like how viewers are feeling during a program, whether they’re paying attention during commercials or whether an advertisement’s joke is resonating with audiences.

“It’s not to say that it can’t also potentially be used to tell things like attitudes, or expressions or identification of moods,” Fuhrer says. “That’s definitely out there, and I don’t think it’s outside the realm of comprehension.”

(MORE: Netflix, Cable Redefining the ‘Hit’)

Facial recognition technology isn’t the only thing that could answer the question of what happens after users are already sitting down and watching. David Poltrack, chief research officer at CBS, says phones and tablets could one day offer another way to analyze viewing habits beyond traditional demographic data. A majority of television viewers watch programs with a second screen on hand to multitask on the web or enhance their viewing experience with social media. Some startups and services already try and measure social activity on second screens, but the devices themselves could one day tell what audiences are watching or how they’re responding.

“The fact that the people who are watching television maybe have a smart phone with them means that the ability is there with these two devices to communicate with each other,” Poltrack says. “That means the phone can be a measurement device to actually pick up what people are watching. The phone can also create interactive opportunities.”

Poltrack calls cross-platform measurement “the holy grail” of viewing data, and, similarly, Fuhrer says the changing landscape of television as online options increase has driven the interest in going beyond the usual age and sex viewer demographics. As traditional audiences become more fragmented, more precise data about who’s watching what helps networks and advertisers make smarter choices about where to spend, according to David Waterman, a professor of telecommunications at Indiana University, Bloomington. Nielsen, for example, has already tracked and matched its TV panel members’ spending habits with their viewing habits, but its recent move to expand the availability of that data to entertainment and telecommunication companies is another step toward helping the industry identify valuable audiences.

“It allows them to differentiate their viewer from their competitor viewer to say, hey, there’s added value in the people that consume my network and my program,” Fuhrer says. “Everyone’s looking for that special sauce that sets apart their product and everyone else’s.” It may just take a camera or your phone to help find it.

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