Cheyne Gateley for Variety
The nation’s big TV companies are calling for a new yardstick.
A trade organization representing Disney, ViacomCBS, NBCUniversal, Fox Corp. and other media giants is calling for the organization that signs off on Nielsen’s methodology for measuring TV viewership to yank accreditation, an aggressive maneuver in an era when media outlets and the advertisers who support them are scrambling to figure out how to count viewer eyeballs across an increasingly unwieldy array of new entertainment venues, digital behaviors and screens.
The trade group, the VAB, on Wednesday sent a ten-page letter to the Media Rating Council urging the group to pull its backing of Nielsen’s ratings, citing Nielsen’s diminished ability to count viewership during the coronavirus pandemic. “Nielsen’s COVID-period conduct as a ratings service violated at least five minimum standards,” the VAB said in its letter, “with the damage done to their largest subscriber clients still creating material negative impact into July 2021.”
George Ivie, CEO of the MRC, said his group had indeed received the letter and is mulling next steps. “The VAB are members of our organization,” he said in a brief phone interview Wednesday, and their concerns “are something we take very seriously, but we have an independent process to execute.” Formed at the behest of the U.S. government in the wake of TV’s quiz-show scandals of the 1950s, the MRC conducts audits of companies that measure media to determine whether they are in compliance with industry standards.
If the VAB is successful in its effort, Nielsen would still be able to measure viewers and the networks and advertisers could continue to use that information. But it would put Nielsen’s work under a cloud of sorts, says Sean Cunningham, CEO of the VAB, in an interview. “It loses the blanket of accreditation, of the idea that it’s the gold standard,” he said. Under such circumstances, TV networks and media agencies might feel more comfortable using other audience measures that are gaining popularity in an era when digital viewing generates reams of new consumer data for Madison Avenue. Advertisers have for several years started to use other criteria in ad deals with TV networks, like deciding upon certain levels of sales, visits to websites or responses to offers.
The VAB demands are the latest salvo in an expanding battle between Nielsen and the TV networks that rely on its measures as the currency for advertising deals. The networks allege Nielsen changed protocols during the coronavirus pandemic that resulted in undercounting of the TV audience over the past year. The networks say Nielsen kept field agents from maintaining technology in individual homes of viewers who take part in Nielsen’s measurement process and, while including homes in its panel whose owners had relocated owing to pandemic conditions. While Nielsen has pledged to rectify the matter, the networks have not been satisfied. In May, the MRC determined Nielsen likely undercounted TV audiences in February of this year.
“We are fully committed to returning to pre-COVID operations and are working closely with and through the MRC to address any outstanding issues and requests and are committed to their process concerning accreditation,” Nielsen said in a statement.
But the VAB believes Nielsen has not been willing to make its recent efforts more transparent, said Cunningham. He said the networks have seen a “lack of any level of disclosure.” The call to the MRC “I think is the only path forward,” said Cunningham, who wants executives “at a marketplace level” to see “that the national panel is in a state of disrepair and needs significant work to gain back market confidence.’
Measuring viewers has become an increasingly tough task as more consumers migrate from linear TV experiences to on-demand binge sessions with their favorite streaming outlet. As media and streaming companies keep disclosure of viewing patterns to a minimum, the job has only grown more difficult. The remedy for this has been for media giants to cobble together new techniques that show how much viewership they can really accumulate as TV fans move from one screen to another. A growing phalanx of data tools — set-top box patterns, shopping behavior, and web tracking — has allowed many of the networks to build proprietary measurement products that let advertisers such as AT&T, Pepsi, and General Motors find pockets of their most likely customers, whether they be high-income technophiles, soda guzzlers, or first-time car buyers. Because each media company has crafted its own system, however, Madison Avenue fears the industry’s unified structure, built atop Nielsen ratings, is crumbling.
Variety's Brian Steinberg contributed to this post.