Nielsen is trying to crack the Netflix data mystery by eavesdropping on TVs

You may have an idea what Netflix shows are the most popular, by talking to friends, family and colleagues. But the truth is, nobody outside of the company’s head office really knows.

Today, consumer insight company Nielsen announced it is going to try to measure how popular shows are on Netflix, by listening to customers’ TVs.

The company has been collecting Netflix data over the last two months in a test run, using audio recognition software in 44,000 US homes, but the figures have not been released. Whether or not Netflix will be happy about the monitoring, after announcing it will spend $8 billion on investment in original films and anime, is yet to be seen.

Since 2014, Nielsen has been able to track the audiences for companies and studies that opted in. But now, the company is going to start measuring it for all audiences, but data will only be available to companies that pay for it.

According to Nielsen, the service is already popular with customers including A&E Networks, Disney-ABC TV Group, Lionsgate, NBC Universal and Warner Brothers. These companies will be able to see viewership data for the programmes they have liscenced to Netflix. This will be the first time the audiences of streaming programmes have been held a closely-guarded secret by the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu.

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“Measurement of streaming video on-demand content has been a big blind spot for the industry,” said Megan Clarken, the Nielsen executive who oversees measurement products related to video. “Being able to follow assets across all these forms of consumer consumption, being measured apples to apples by a third party independent measurement is incredibly important for the studios, for the licensors or the rights holders of content.”

Whether or not the figures are accurate is another question. The count only involves Netflix shows watched on a TV, not a laptop or tablet.

Previous efforts by other companies to measure streaming viewership have been criticised, for example Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, said figures gathered by Symphony Advanced Media that used audio recognition by 15,000 people were inaccurate. But Clarken said Nielsen’s methods were ‘superior’. “Symphony was a small panel. It wasn’t recruited in any kind of capacity to the gold standard that we recruit, so there’s no representation in there,” she said. “And it was very small.”

“It provided interesting analytics,” she said. “Our goal is to go well beyond interesting analytics. This is about providing a ratings equivalent to a high quality ratings service.”

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