It's almost 2016: Do you know what your children are watching?

You thought it was tough tracking a 30-year-old's viewing habits? Try figuring out what his kids are watching

Nielsen tells us that traditional TV is still the favored choice among the masses. And that may very well be true for the so-called "digital immigrants" (translation: the 50+ crowd). But the closer you look at the viewing habits of the younger generations — specifically the "digital natives" (those born in the digital era) — the more unlikely it seems  that the Nielsen ratings accurately reflect the full reality. 

Take, for example, the top-rated shows among two- to 11-year-olds this season. According to Nielsen, the toddler set is crazy about football. Primetime NFL coverage on both CBS and Fox top the ratings for the demographic this season, beating everything on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon — two outlets synonymous with the non-adult sector.  

I’m not here to tell you a three-year-old can’t enjoy a good touchdown. But as I was divvying out those miniature Snickers and Kit Kat bars to the neighborhood kids on Halloween, I didn’t see a whole lot of NFL jerseys among the gaggles of Peppa Pigs and "Paw Patrol" wannabes. Yet if you only listened to Nielsen, you would never know these hugely popular shows existed: neither appears anywhere on this season’s top-10 highest rated shows among two- to 11-year-olds. 

Maybe these shows simply generate more chatter than ratings, a phenomenon we’ve all become familiar with. Or maybe the traditional ratings are just failing to accurately capture the viewing habits of this latest generation of digital natives. I honestly can’t say, and I’m not sure anyone else can either. 

Kids watched over 21 hours per week of television on average, this past October, according to Ron Geraci, Nickelodeon EVP of research and planning. That number is on par with last year. The obstacle at present is not having the data readily available to support the actual relevance of non-linear consumption.

"We have access to all the same metrics we have for TV for our owned and operated platforms like our websites and our apps," explained Geraci. "We know what shows of ours are being viewed on a tablet via the Nick Jr. app, for example. We know how long they are spending with the app on each device and we know what types of activities are being done. So, we do have robust data about the consumption that goes on with our content."

"But data on what else they are consuming outside of our world is harder to come by at this time," he said. So Nick Jr. may know (more or less) how many people are watching "Peppa Pig" through its on-demand channel, or even its iPad app. But the hours of the show that have been uploaded and viewed millions of times on YouTube are going unaccounted for. And that probably represents a significant chunk of viewing time, at least for a certain demographic.

Of course, digital habits vary by age. "You may not be seeing a two or three year old with a smartphone or an iPad, but the scenario shifts once they reach the age of five or six," said Andy Donchin, chief investment officer for Dentsu Aegis Network. "And these kids of today are the adults of tomorrow. They are the faces of this new digital era."

The rapid rise of kids-themed content on digital outlets like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, which are being generated to increase the subscriber list, also creates a challenge minus any available reported data. And classic "Sesame Street," a staple on PBS since 1969, is now airing in originals on HBO and its streaming outlets (with repeats on PBS).  But Nielsen, which has spent two years building a foundation for its cross-platform total audience measurement, promises to account for all viewing across linear TV, DVR, VOD, connected TV devices (Apple TV, Roku and Xbox), mobile, PC and tablets soon. The target launch is in early 2016 (which, based on past history, is unlikely to happen on time). And it could offer the necessary statistics for advertisers to best position their advertising buys.

"As its stands, recommendations to our clients range from linear television, which we still recognize the value of, to an increasing emphasis on these digital outlets," said Donchin. "Any appropriate advertising buy for any demographic should incorporate all the different digital layers (including viewership on platforms like YouTube). But without the specific data to support these buys, much of it is based on assumption and speculation. What Nielsen is planning, if done properly, could be of significant relevance.  But that is a big if."

While the way kids watch TV continues to shift, the true meaning of just how to program to the demographic has not changed, according to PBS.

"In these particular demographics, it has never really been just about producing for television," said Sara DeWitt, VP of PBS Kids Digital. "Television producers need to also pitch a digital plan that incorporates all platforms. And we recognize the extreme value of Video on Demand, particularly when a parent needs to find something to occupy their child."

"But, when all is said and done, the key ingredients within our shows have not changed," she continued. "Our priorities — then and now — are to build knowledge, imagination and curiosity through good characters and positive role models in a visually appealing environment. It is all about breaking through the clutter."

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