By Leah Hochbaum Rosner

TV ratings measurement has always been a hotly contested issue among broadcasters, many of whom have for years claimed that Nielsen Media Research misrepresented their viewership numbers. (The process is now aggravated by the fact that commercials themselves are now being measured, but, for now, let’s stick with our original problem.) Broadcasters desire a broader definition for ratings that includes cable airings, re-runs and time-shifted viewing, while marketers want to stick with the status quo. Which begs the questions: how can a program’s audience correctly be gauged in a universe of multiple-platforms and DVRs?

The answer, according to some: “live plus,” a broad term that encompasses “live plus same day,” “live plus three” days and “live plus seven” days, the variations of Nielsen’s “live” ratings that, among others, take DVR playback into account. It’s been estimated that these days, primetime TV commercials are only viewed by roughly 8-10 percent of viewers, abysmal numbers as far as advertisers are concerned. But how can they combat this?

“Many marketers aren’t happy with ‘live plus seven,’” said Brad Adgate, senior vp and director of Research at Horizon Media, pointing out the uselessness of a viewer watching a commercial for a one-day sale that already ended. “So ‘live plus three’ is a better compromise. Since Nielsen says 95 percent of all viewing occurs within three days of a program’s initial airing, this shorter window helps placate most marketers.”

But even with these new ratings time periods, viewership continues to drop for network television. This summer alone, “live plus same day” DVR viewership, which gives audiences an extra day after a program’s original airing to watch a show, was down 2.3 million per night for the Big Four U.S. broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) — a whopping nine percent lower than last year, according to Nielsen data.

But it’s not just the heat that’s tearing people away from television. During the regular U.S. broadcast season, which ended May 23, the nets were down an average of 1.5 million viewers per night, 3.6 percent lower than the 2005-06 season.

The summer season’s loss is 60 percent more than during the regular TV season because the nets have decided it’s not economically feasible to produce scripted summer series, and must therefore rely on repeats, which, in the best of times, get only 60 percent of their regular-season numbers.

At this year’s Upfronts, NBC Universal inked a pioneering deal totaling somewhere between $800 million and $1 billion with media buying conglomerate Group M, which consists of Mindshare, mediaedge:cia and Mediacom. Despite its costliness, the really compelling part of this agreement was that Group M agreed to use “live plus three” days of ratings data. The initial agreement is across all properties: NBC, Telemundo, USA Network, Sci-Fi, Bravo, as well as digital and branded content. Group M has leveraged the deal for many of its clients, including Burger King, IBM, Sprint, Volkswagen, Cingular and Nokia.

“‘Live plus three’ is a relatively fair solution that gives the networks the time-shifted viewing and lets advertisers only pay for people who actually watch the commercials,” said an NBC Uni spokesman who spoke on condition of anonymity, before adding that time-shifted viewing is too big a percentage of today’s overall viewing to be ignored.

“It’s in the interests of both the broadcast networks and marketers to come to some sort of agreement considering the billions of dollars at play in this industry,” added Adgate.

While other nets have been slower to jump on Nielsen’s new “live plus three” bandwagon, it remains to be seen whether or not advertisers and networks will both ultimately be happy with the new arrangement. Either way, one thing’s for sure: the world has changed — and program ratings will never be the same.