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Nielsen takes another crack at gauging our streaming habits

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It’s incomplete, but better than what Netflix is offering

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Photo illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Nielsen, the nearly century-old research firm which produces the eponymous gold standard for television ratings, is taking a more serious look into how much Americans are streaming. The result of its labors: an ominously named rating system it calls The Gauge.

While Nielsen has tried to calculate the popularity of various streaming programs before (through audio analysis), The Gauge seems to hew closer to the ways Nielsen has measured TV viewership in the past: via a device which, according to The New York Times, “observes internet traffic that passes through a router.” Presumably, this device is attached directly to the televisions of the roughly 14,000 homes from which The Gauge currently gathers data, as the Times once again reports that the measurement does “not count what is watched on phones or laptops.”

The initial findings for May 2021, perhaps unsurprisingly then, skew in favor of regular old network and cable TV, which Nielsen predicts we spend about 64 percent of our living room screentime watching. Streaming, in total, racked up just 26 percent, with YouTube and Netflix making up 6 percent each, followed by Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Disney Plus with 3, 2, and 1 percent, respectively. But again, this is only measuring TV screen usage — not what’s happening on laptop, desktop, phone, or tablet screens — and even these metrics are difficult to put into perspective.

Image: Nielsen

Without much information on how Nielsen’s device works, it’s impossible to say if The Gauge is counting streams that might come through a streaming set-top box or gaming console that has its own internet connectivity and a physical connection to the TV — or, for that matter, streams from a secondary device that are cast to a TV. (We’ve reached out to Nielsen for additional details.)

Still, streaming services have shown themselves to be guarded where audience metrics are concerned, releasing next to no data on how many eyeballs their in-house shows or the content they pay to license receive. Netflix in particular has a reputation for being extremely selective in which titles it presents audience data for, and even then rarely providing more granular information such as whether viewers actually finished watching the damn thing. In that sense, The Gauge is a welcome change for an industry that’s enjoyed a very long stretch without transparency.