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Nielsen will close the chapter on paper diaries for TV ratings by early 2018

Dear Nielsen Diary: It's time to say goodbye.

As it shifts to electronically track TV ratings in all its markets, Nielsen Co. is phasing out use of the iconic paper diaries that have been used to track viewership habits of TV families since the birth of the television era in the 1950s, back when shows like I Love Lucy ruled the airwaves.

Nielsen, which operates its media research nerve center out of a complex in Oldsmar, said it will electronically measure TV ratings across all 210 of its "designated market areas," or DMAs, by July 2017.

The paper diaries, which are still used in 140 TV markets, will be formally retired by early 2018.

Those markets will convert to using what's known as Return Path Data, an electronic measurement to track audience size by channel.

"By tapping into the strengths of Return Path Data and electronic measurement, and combining it with Nielsen's gold-standard panels and meters, we will be delivering a superior product to help all local clients address current challenges and be better positioned for future trends," Megan Clarken, president of Nielsen Product Leadership, said in a prepared statement.

"These enhancements are part of Nielsen's commitment to invest in and transform how local TV is measured in a cross-platform world across all screens and devices."

With the viewer diaries, selected Nielsen homes were charged with self-recording their viewing or listening habits.

Instead of the antiquated and flawed paper diaries, Nielsen said the change will provide "consistent measurement, true-person exposure data and complete local market coverage" around-the-clock.

The shift has been anticipated for a very long time.

From initially tracking radio ratings, Nielsen held a virtual monopoly over TV ratings in the United States for decades. But even as it increasingly moved to electronic tracking, its diaries were viewed by many in the industry as a relic of a bygone era.

The $768 million merger of media measurement companies ComScore and Rentrak, which was completed in February, amped up the pressure on Nielsen to make the next step. Virginia-based ComScore uses data from set-top boxes to furnish TV ratings.

Contact Jeff Harrington at jharrington@tampabay.com. Follow @JeffMHarrington.

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