More than half the audience for some shows in the United States now comes within a month of broadcast. A new service from Rentrak aims to track what it terms the ‘total audience’ — showing the increase in viewing for prime time programmes on digital video recorders and video on demand. Nielsen is also finally adapting its measurement systems to include online viewing. But the industry still seems confused about what it is actually trying to measure.

The audiences for many programmes, as traditionally measured, are in long-term decline. This may be partially accounted by a move to watching shows online or through video-on-demand services, although it is also attributable to the vast variety of viewing options now available.

The first Total Audience Viewing Report from Rentrak showed significant increases in viewing for some shows, mainly fictional series, when playback within 28 days of broadcast is included.

This amounted to more than half the overall audience for popular network shows such as The Vampire Diaries and a third of the total for series like Grey’s Anatomy, New Girl and Revolution.

“With a report that looks at a month of TV viewing, both networks and their agency clients can discover the true audience shift and lift beyond a week,” said the chief executive of Rentrak, Bill Livek.

Nielsen will finally begin measuring online viewing through broadband-enabled devices in the autumn. It amounts to a new definition of television viewing, to include screens that are only connected to internet devices, such as media streamers or games consoles. In theory it could also apply to services such as Aereo and the recently announced but so-far un-named Intel television platform.

The proposals were discussed at a meeting of Nielsen executives and representatives from networks and the advertising industry.

However, there appear to be significant limitations in the proposed system. It seems it will not be able to track viewing on tablets and may not be able to identify particular programmes on services such as Netflix. It will not include video-on-demand viewing on cable television, for which Nielsen offers a separate measurement system.

For its part, BARB, the measurement system used in the United Kingdom, says it is committed to rolling out a web-TV meter that has been developed by Kantar Media Audiences to 600 of its panel homes. It is also looking at going beyond seven day consolidated ratings.

A key issue is that different platforms offer different adverts and as advertising becomes more targeted it becomes harder to advertisers to see where their money is going.

In our view, the real problem is that traditional television measurement systems are still trying to count the wrong thing. They are aiming to determine the audience to programmes, rather than measuring which adverts are actually watched, which is what matters to advertisers.

Of course, networks still want to know who is watching what programme, so they know which ones to commission and how to schedule and promote them to maximise their return on investment.

The irony is that online and on-demand services for the first time offer a real-time insight into what people are actually watching, although there is still no common currency to account for this, or even industry consensus on what constitutes viewing a programme.

Meanwhile, Billboard is belatedly including YouTube streams in its music charts, which are based on data collected by Nielsen. It means that “Harlem Shake” a viral video viewed over a hundred million times on YouTube, leaps straight into the number one spot. It was apparently created in a day just a year ago by 23-year-old Harry Rodrigues, better known as Baauer, in his bedroom studio in Brooklyn. How long will it be before a viral video tops the television ratings?