Nielsen, TV Networks Battle Over Ratings And Few May Win

TV viewers can watch their favorite programs any way they want. If media executives aren’t careful, the industry will soon be counting those people in equally chaotic fashion.

A suspension of Media Rating Council backing for Nielsen’s venerable national and local TV ratings service, announced Wednesday, offers the clearest signal yet of the breakdown of the industry’s ability to measure the audiences that watch comedies, dramas, news broadcasts and sports matches. The problem is not likely to be solved anytime soon.

Nielsen and the networks have been in a months-long showdown over whether the measurement giant can count TV crowds correctly amid the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and the industry’s rapid move to streaming video. In May, the MRC, a little-known body formed at the behest of the U.S. government in the wake of TV’s quiz-show scandals in the 1950s to maintain measurement standards for the media and advertising industries, found Nielsen had, in fact, undercounted TV viewers earlier this year.

The networks still count on Nielsen to tell them who watched a drama at 9 p.m. on ABC or which cable-news anchor captured the most live viewers last quarter or even how many people watched the Super Bowl and the Oscars. The suspension isn’t going to change that. But it throws into sharp relief how many new kinds of viewing Nielsen is still trying to figure out how to monitor, such as a football game watched via mobile device; the playback of a cable movie via DVR more than a month after it was recorded; a binge-watch on any popular ad-supported streaming hub; or even the sampling of a new program on a cable network that is too small for Nielsen ratings to apply to it.

“Classically delivered linear and live television is Nielsen’s bread and butter, and there isn’t any real challenge to that in term of their capabilities. But the major elephant in the room is that the vast majority of viewer behavior is fractionalizing into multiple environments that are neither linear nor live,” says Tim Hanlon of The Vertere Group, a consultancy that works with media and advertising companies. “This only speaks to the crucial need everyone has to find alternate or at least supplemental data to prove who is watching.”

Nielsen’s service remains intact during its suspension, but it has, for now, lost its “gold seal” of approval. Many media companies are already casting about for alternatives.

NBCUniversal has been the loudest, saying it has issued dozens of requests for proposals to a variety of measurement firms — Nielsen among them — in hopes of finding a group of vendors to help it devise a new system for monitoring audiences. One person familiar with the process says NBCU is likely to choose a small handful of the companies, each assigned the responsibility for handing a particular task.

Others are clearly looking to work with other services. WarnerMedia executives “actively vet and partner with a diverse group of measurement companies to grow and enhance our portfolio solution set,” said Andrea Zapata, head of research, data and insights, WarnerMedia Ad Sales. ”We embrace innovation in the measurement space, and look forward to learning and recommending best in class strides in this space.” In June, WarnerMedia announced it was taking part in a national trial with Comscore, a Nielsen rival.

One TV executive who works closely with Nielsen suggests the industry may wind up using a broader array of yardsticks, rather than relying upon a single one so heavily. “We could be at the dawn of multi-currency, multi-platform measurement,” the executive says.

Such a development, however, will raise a host of new issues.

Imagine a crisp fall day in September or October in the middle of a week when CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox have all launched new series. CBS says a new sitcom has done well because its data shows 70% of people who accessed it via its parent company’s streaming outlet, Paramount Plus, watched the entire episode. NBC says a special NFL broadcast was a success because it tabulated viewers across linear TV, streaming and other digital windows. ABC claims a new Thursday-night drama is leading the pack because Comscore shows female viewers between 18 to 49 tended to gravitate toward it. And Fox, in a rare release of proprietary data, says people who intend to buy cars flocked to the premiere of this season’s “Masked Singer.”

Who did best? The answer isn’t immediately clear.

This sort of limited disclosure has slowly become the norm. Streamers like Netflix and Amazon don’t release reams of viewing information regularly, and even the TV networks have tamped down on the practice in recent months.

In the end, the viewership numbers that mean the most will be those important to Madison Avenue, where residents such as Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola want to know how many and what type of consumers their commercials reached ( Ad-free streamers don’t matter as much, but some marketers are trying to find ways to align themselves with those services’ shows as well.)

If the networks introduce a phalanx of new measures, chances are advertisers will press to do deals based on the data points that are most important to them. An automaker might be most interested in how many showroom visits an ad spurred when it was placed on Peacock or Hulu. A direct-to-consumer retailer like Wayfair may want to do a deal that hinges on website traffic. A movie studio will look for its ads to drive opening-night tickets. A Nielsen measure of how many people saw the ad in the first place may be part of the puzzle, but not the whole game. And the advertiser’s data, not a network’s and not a third party’s, may be the most important of all.

“Marketers are demanding stuff like attribution and outcomes and return on investment and butts in seats,” says Hanlon. “Nielsen, frankly, is almost an impediment.”

The TV-industry’s frustration with its longtime yardstick is palpable. “The reality is that data has never been more important to content companies, and the challenge of determining exactly who is watching what, when, across multiple platforms has never been more complex,” says Kim Kelleher, president of commercial revenue and partnerships for AMC Networks. Disney on Wednesday suggested Nielsen may not be up to the task. “We have become increasingly concerned with inaccuracies and irregularities in the data reported by Nielsen, and urged them to more quickly pivot their processes and practices to fix known issues,” the company said in a statement issued by its ad-sales division. “The modernization of Nielsen’s measurement is long overdue.”

Yet if Nielsen can’t do it, who really can? Simply put, the investment to build a reliable infrastructure for media measurement is significant. Chances are companies like Comcast, WarnerMedia, ViacomCBS, Disney, Fox or Discovery would be hard-pressed to do it on their own, or even as a team. Can companies that vie with each other for viewers come together to count them?

And would-be Nielsen rivals have faced their own distractions in recent years. Comscore had to delay its ambitions of taking on Nielsen and fix internal accounting issues. Kantar, a London-based measurement company, was spun off by its owner, ad giant WPP, and is now majority owned by Bain Capital.

Nielsen has long been a source of frustration to the TV networks, even more so in an era when their business is undergoing such rapid change. The MRC suspension may even be a boon to the measurement company, which can work on developing new cross-media techniques for the next several months without having to deal with the intense scrutiny accorded it for the past several months. The best replacement for Nielsen could well end up being Nielsen.

In the interim, however, rivals will try to snatch away pieces of Nielsen business and in doing so, may cause the task of measurement to splinter along dozens of new methodologies. That could make things more difficult, rather than easy. After all, a marketplace flows when everyone speaks the same language. But the industry may wind up giving rise to a modern-day Tower of Babel, where everyone has something to say, but few can understand what it is that’s being offered.

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