July 12, 2009, Updated September 13, 2012

An Israeli company could revolutionize the TV ratings system with a technology that transmits compressed audio via cell phone, giving a far more accurate picture of what viewers are really watching.

The old “Nielsen box” – that tells us who’s watching what on TV – is about to become a relic of the low-tech past, asserts CEO Dave Springer of Israel’s Mobile Research Labs (MobileRL).

Using an unobtrusive cell phone application, marketers and advertisers can now track what media consumers are tuning into – anytime, anywhere, and with far more accuracy than current media measurement systems provide.

“We expect our technology to become the one companies in the media field look to for solutions to what have been, until now, their most pressing problems,” says Springer.

As everyone knows, television advertising is big business, with the most popular shows able to command a premium price for commercial breaks. To determine which shows are the most popular, broadcasters turn to companies like Nielsen (for TV) and Arbitron (for radio), to find out which programs are the most popular.

Using a combination of technological (“measuring boxes” that record which program is being tuned into and at what time) and non-technological (diaries) methods, the companies enroll several thousand scientifically-chosen sample families and individuals to report on their viewing and listening habits. With 30-second commercials on a prime time TV network in the US costing about $125,000, advertisers clearly have a great deal of faith in the ratings.

No chance to cheat

Unfortunately for advertisers, it’s often misplaced faith, says Springer. “The ratings companies do what they can, but in the field, it’s really up to the consumer to follow the rules in order to ensure an accurate picture,” he tells ISRAEL21c.

“But many don’t always follow the rules; they’re too busy or they lose interest, they decide they don’t want to do the work involved in logging into the system or writing down what they view or listen to, or they cheat in order to help out shows they like, even if they’re watching something else at the time.”

Advertisers, media moguls and ratings monitoring services are all actively seeking technologies that can more accurately pinpoint the tremendously valuable information upon which so much media money relies.

According to Springer, they need look no further. “Instead of a big, bulky ratings meter like the one Nielsen puts in your home, we have an easy and light piece of software that’s installed on participants’ cell phones. As the consumer is watching TV, or listening to the radio at home, or in the car for that matter, the software is sampling the audio portion of the program every few minutes.

A compressed bit of audio is sent to the ratings company database, where it gets matched up to the programming that is being presented in the consumer’s area. The system then indicates what the consumer was watching or listening to, giving a far more accurate portrayal of the media that was being consumed,” he explains.

Pop ups that provide special offers

A lightweight signal that doesn’t take up too much bandwidth, or run up an overly high data bill for the consumer, is transmitted to the ratings server. Since all a person has to do is switch on his or her phone, there’s almost no danger of cheating or otherwise inaccurately recording information, making the MobileRL system extremely reliable.

And there’s more. With MobileRL precisely pinpointing what a consumer is watching or listening to at any given moment, the system can be used by marketers to appeal to potential customers.

“Let’s say the consumer is watching a show and a commercial for a Proctor and Gamble product comes on. Knowing the consumer is watching it, the company can send a little pop-up to the consumer’s cell phone, making them a special offer for the product,” says Springer.

For the first time in modern media history, he adds, advertisers have a way to connect directly with consumers and interest them in their products, while they’re watching a clever ad. In his example, Springer uses Procter and Gamble – because the company made a presentation before top P&G executives, who, Springer says, “just loved it.”

Springer is sure that sending pop-ups to individual cell phones is anything but invasive. He envisions the ad outreach as a voluntary program, with consumers opting in to receive coupons, as in many other marketing programs. For others whose habits are being monitored, privacy is guaranteed. The ratings companies are interested in aggregate statistics for their database, not individual information; and the cell phone signals that are transmitted to the server are encoded.

Advertisers searching for this technology

“The only people who can use that information anyway are the people who work with the ‘master media’ that the snippets are being matched up to. That, too, is a voluntary program, but we still ensure security and privacy for all participants,” Springer says. “I can say that the Nielsen box system is far more invasive, and yet thousands of people are willing to do it, for free.”

Springer, who served most recently as CEO of a physical security products and services company called Vumii, is an old hand at corporate presentations.

Along with his partners – Aron Weiss, who invented the system, Omri Halevi, head of business development, and Jacob Levy, who, says Springer, “basically invented the field of market research in Israel” – Springer has been showing MobileRL’s technology to many interested parties.

The company is now embarking on a major test program with a large marketing firm. The team has also presented to companies in Japan, where media companies and marketers reportedly loved it as well. Even venerable Nielsen thought the system was great, says Springer: “Marketers and advertisers have been looking for something like this for a long timee.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director