Michael Wolff Blasts Nielsen Cable Ratings: What If They Aren't Real?

Illustration by: Lars Leetaru

Outdated Nielsen measurement tools fail to account for TV’s new viewership patterns and rising sub fees as potentially inaccurate numbers drive a digital media narrative.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

At the heart of the television business in 2015 is an existential is-God-dead sort of question: Where has the cable audience gone? Or has it gone? Perhaps it is hiding in plain sight.

At stake is the future of cable. Or the future of Nielsen.

Since the summer, aggregate cable viewership has decreased starkly — down about 8 percent or more, according to Nielsen third-quarter data. Viacom's networks, including MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon, were off as much as 15 percent. TruTV, BET and A&E were down more than 20 percent. Because advertising revenue is based on Nielsen numbers, the ad market has seemed to tumble, too. MoffettNathanson — one of several analysts promoting a sense of crisis — has predicted cable ad growth of only 3 percent in 2014, cutting an earlier prediction by half. "The rapid collapse in cable TV network ratings over the second half of 2014 is worse than ever expected," declared a recent MoffettNathanson report

To say this has caused an outpouring of joy on the digital media side is only a minor overstatement. In an increasingly binary media world, television's loss is seen as digital's gain. Even rumors of a crack in TV's hegemony — with its near lock on big-brand advertising — redounds to digital, at the very least to its PR benefit. That's the digital talking point: The shift from TV advertising — promised by digital media for nearly 20 years — finally, really, possibly is starting to happen.

Yet this seismic culture- and business-bending development has caught the television community quite unaware. This not only is because the industry is fat and happy after a historic period of revenue and profit growth. Rather, it's because the cable audience appears solidly in place — and growing. Here's proof: Per-subscriber cable fees (subscriber subsidies are calculated on a dollar-to-month per-person rate) are, even with rumors of cord-cutting, steady and rising. At Comcast, programming fees for its cable networks through the third quarter of 2014 increased 2 percent compared with the first nine months of 2013. For the same period, Time Warner Cable reported a 7 percent increase. Why would Comcast or TWC continue to pay for a phantom audience, and why would the audience continue to pay fees if they weren't watching?

Hence, there are contrary realities:

If fewer people are watching cable, then there ought to be a corresponding decline in what cable operators are paying for that audience — but there isn't. (This doesn't seem simply a result of the market's slow reaction. Nielsen indicated a 2.8 percent viewership decline in 2013, without a similar drop in cable fees.) On the other hand, there is Nielsen, employing its classic household-sampling model and concluding there is growing audience flight. The reality on the ground, in other words, doesn't match the official data model. So, do you believe the marketplace or a 20,000-home sample?

Through most of television's history, there have been quarrels with Nielsen's model. As a statistical sampling technique, there is a lot wrong with it. But because everybody was subject to it and no media company owned it, it became a standard — and, therefore, fair — gauge. Everyone in the business was selling advertising according to the same measure.

But that statistical authority changes when subscriptions become a powerful part of the equation. Now you have an empirical measure, not a purported portrait of behavior but an accounting: This many people pay for the product.

Now, too, you have the digital competitor. It's selling advertising against video but is not measured uniformly by Nielsen. Therefore it is able to make use of Nielsen's negative view of TV for its own advantage, without being held to the same standards. (Because there are few agreed-upon digital measurements, Kraft announced in October that it was rejecting 75 percent to 85 percent of digital impressions.)

In other words, Nielsen has become an increasingly problematic variable for the television industry. What does it mean when its model produces a significant variant to other evidence? Why should one form of ad-supported video be subject to it and another not?

There is, too, another difficult part of the dialectic: parsing the difference between "television" and "cable" as a distribution channel and "television" and "cable" as a business. The Nielsen model, with its virtues and flaws, measures the former but is remote from — if not pretty much clueless about — the latter.

In the latter, a host of behaviors inarguably have changed the way television is distributed, through new platforms and across new devices with increasing flexibility. But, arguably, those behaviors do not represent a change in appetite or demand for television. They might, in fact, be increasing it. Anecdotally, television seems as central to the culture as ever before — perhaps more.

Indeed, the most reasonable explanation for the discrepancy between Nielsen data and cable operator subscription fees is a phenomenon larger and more interesting than cord-cutting. Viewers are maintaining their cable subscriptions but simultaneously expanding their viewing habits — aided by their cable subscriptions and, at more cost, added on to them — across many new devices and platforms. They are watching differently — subtleties Nielsen can't measure — but not watching less. Intuitively, they are watching more.

The very unit of a Nielsen measurement — the gross rating point (GRP), the number of eyeballs that saw your show day-of-air and during the following three days — somehow seems from another lifestyle. It's a measurement of time past, rather than time present and future. One effect of this measurement — the basis for advertiser guarantees — is that cable and broadcast companies must give up revenue if Nielsen's figures are lower than their guarantees. When that happens, the advertising market appears in decline. But, in fact, television advertiser demand is climbing.

While Viacom's Nielsen ratings declined 15 percent during the third quarter of 2014, its revenue during that period climbed 9 percent. Part of the growth stemmed from the fact that 30 percent of Viacom's domestic ad revenue, coming from over-the-top platforms and other non-GRP-measured sources, is outside of Nielsen ratings.

What otherwise might be an internal industry debate about measurement — consumption falling but demand arguably staying the same or rising — becomes a fundamental almost-life-or-death fact because of digital's claim that it is the cause and beneficiary of this anomaly. ("Shift in Spending to Digital Outlets Deflates Hopes, at Both Cable and Broadcast Companies, for a Second-Half Rebound," declared a Wall Street Journal headline — though very little of digital's ad growth has come from television's traditional big-brand spenders and more from print and other direct-sales efforts.) Digital, with its increasing market valuations (hence the analysts' rooting interest) and its own house press (digital publishers inevitably become cheerleaders for digital media), has come to be the dominant media voice in the way the three broadcast networks once ran the media story, all but dictating it to reporters. It's a singular message: Digital is the future.

If you say it enough, maybe it will be.

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