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Lessons From a Dark and Stormy Night

Somewhere in the suburbs of northern New Jersey, a phone rings. The caller is bearing news: “I just heard that there’s a station open. I’ll text you where you need to go.” It doesn’t matter that it’s 9PM. You have to take your opportunity when you can. So you run out the door to get in line and hope that they don’t run out before it’s your turn.

Three hours later, you’re told that they’re all out. Sorry. So you start to look around for another source, as you steel yourself over the prospect of having to do it all over again, with the same results.

Is this a driver suffering through another post-Sandy gas line? Nope. It’s a media buyer looking for GRPs. Because of the storm, there are only so many viewers that can be reliably measured, so research is being rationed now.

“Why didn’t we come up with alternative research sources before all this?” laments the poor buyer, exhausted from yet another marathon buying session.

Far-fetched? Sure. But as any recent gas-line survivor will tell you, the unthinkable does happen. And while you’re at the mercy of circumstances, you do a lot of thinking about how things might have been different. So it’s easy to see how any interruption of resources – whether it’s gasoline or viewership statistics – will have a real impact upon people’s lives and commerce.

This storm served as a practical demonstration of the fragility of our technological world. Sandy disrupted power for millions of homes across the New York DMA and beyond, and with it took half of the sample homes that produce the viewing estimates of the nation’s largest TV market for several days.

Has there ever been a more crystal-clear example of why it’s so imperative to keep exploring improvements in media measurement?

The reality is that we’re in a data-centric world with media options growing all the time. It’s necessary that our measurement capabilities continue to keep in step. And it’s not just because of a random natural act, but because we can’t measure the media of the future with technologies of the past.

Panel, diary, census, set-top box, DVR, active meter, passive meter, whatever the new or existing avenue to the data– to measure live and time-shifted viewing on such a wide spectrum of platforms traditional TVs, online, through gaming systems, streaming, tablets, mobile, and more – it will never really be practical to end our pursuit of the most advanced research methods to measure them.

With so much of the industry clamoring for things like single-source measurement and brand-specific ratings, all it took was a really bad storm to show how easily measurement can become a house of cards. We can’t take for granted just how hard it is to get these measurements right, even for things that ordinarily work quite well.

It’s incumbent upon the industry to encourage not just those methodologies that seem to be “alternative”, but to embrace those smart and practical improvements to measurement that can help us the next time we find ourselves at the mercy of Mother Nature – or even just the next wave of simultaneous screening.

We have enough going on in this industry that keeps us up at night. Hoping the data doesn’t run out before you get what you need shouldn’t be one of them.

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