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Nielsen Looks Beyond TV, and Hits Roadblocks

Being part of a “Nielsen household” has long been a point of pride for people whose television habits are monitored by the Nielsen Company. In exchange for token compensation, these viewers know that their personal taste influences Hollywood and

But now that Nielsen wants households to let it eavesdrop on many more activities — from Web surfing to cellphone use — how far will people open their doors?

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As television watching has waned as a component of media consumption, Nielsen has been trying to retool the way it collects ratings, to keep the figures relevant to the advertisers and media companies that are its clients.

Instead of tracking the TV habits of one set of people, the purchases made by a second set and the Web use of a third, Nielsen would like to track multiple activities of the same people, allowing it to determine when someone saw an ad and then bought the product.

Needless to say, this is a tough sell and raises potential privacy concerns.

“I’m going to go to a home and say, ‘I want your TV, I want your Internet, here’s a cellphone you’re going to use and, by the way, I want to measure your grocery purchases,’ ” said James M. O’Hara, president for media product leadership at Nielsen. “That’s a lot.”

Nielsen faces growing competition in the ratings business, but its advantage is the strength of its brand name, which opens the doors to many households. The company maintains 17 “panels,” or groups, of people who agree to have a certain aspect of their life monitored. Each television household, for example, can participate for two years and receives a few hundred dollars in cash and gifts; Nielsen promises to keep their identities secret.

In one potential setback to its ambitious modernization plan, Nielsen last year ran tests to determine the willingness of its television-monitoring households to allow electronic tracking of a second behavior, Web usage. So many people said no because of privacy concerns that Nielsen said this month it would scale back the plan — for now, at least — making the Web tracking optional.

On Monday it announced a second blow: the cancellation of a three-year-old effort, Project Apollo, that has been monitoring the buying and radio and television habits of 5,000 households. The initiative, a joint venture of Nielsen and Arbitron, was stopped because too few clients wanted to pay for the results, which were expensive.

A note of caution from Project Apollo is that the share of households willing to let Nielsen and Arbitron track three or four activities was far lower than the percentage that normally agrees to sign up for Nielsen’s television panels, said Dave Thomas, president for media client services at Nielsen.

“The more tasks you burden a respondent with, the less likely they are to participate,” Mr. Thomas said.

If there is a silver lining, it is that Nielsen can now pursue multimedia ratings projects on its own without treading on the exclusive agreement it had with Arbitron, which specializes in radio tracking. Nielsen has already begun asking some of the 125,000 people in its United States shopping panel, Homescan, if can track their Internet use. Among those who have been asked, Mr. Thomas said, there had been a slight drop in participation.

Despite the skittishness of consumers, Nielsen is pressing ahead with a strategy it calls Anytime Anywhere Media Measurement — or A2/M2. The goal is one day to track media consumption everywhere, much of it from the same people. The broader focus has demanded that the company introduce more consumer panels, and it now runs 16 of them (excluding Project Apollo), up from five panels 10 years ago.

Among other efforts, Nielsen is working with large retailers to track how much shoppers look at television screens in malls and stores. The company has given people G.P.S. devices to track where they go. And it is working with Ball State University to observe people in their homes.

This month, Nielsen announced an investment in a small company in California that tracks people’s eye movement, brain waves and perspiration while they watch television. Nielsen had already acquired several smaller measurement companies, like NetRatings, which tracks Web surfing and is now called Nielsen Online.

Nielsen Looks Beyond TV

“One of the things we will do better is provide a broad view of how a consumer goes through their day,” said Susan D. Whiting, executive vice president of Nielsen and the executive leading A2/M2. “Broadly, it’s about how are consumers spending their time, how are they consuming media, whether it be TV or music or movies or whatever they’re doing online. And as that content and all that activity moves from device to device, how can we measure that?”

Nielsen faces competitors in every medium. In television, T.N.S. is offering new types of ratings information, like viewing by some of DirecTV’s satellite subscribers. On the Internet, comScore fiercely competes with Nielsen to provide counts of page views, video streams and monthly visitors to Web sites. And on cellphones, companies like M:Metrics track activity.

Advertising executives say they are glad there is competition in the ratings market, but they also say that Nielsen is the most likely to provide the total picture.

“They have the best chance of bringing it together in any meaningful way, because they’re in everything,” said Janice Finkel Greene, executive vice president and director for futures and technology at Initiative, an agency that buys ads in the Interpublic Group. “That’s their strategy.”

The alternative is that Nielsen could merge data from separate panels, as it does already with figures from its online and television panels. Nielsen tries to compare people in one panel with similar people in another, but some researchers at say they want data from the same sample.

“Data fusion is a good place to start,” said Ron Geraci, senior vice president of Nickelodeon Research, “But to really understand consumer behavior, I think it important to capture that all in a single sample.”

Nielsen’s goal is eventually to coax all its television households to agree to Web monitoring as well.

At first, the TV households will be asked only for permission to track their viewing of online videos, like YouTube clips or television shows, not their online financial transactions or Web use. And if those households refuse, Nielsen will still keep them in its core television panel.