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Nielsen having its accreditation suspended for its national and local TV ratings measurement sounds like a big deal — and it may turn out to be, but only if there’s another company ready to step in and replace the decades-old currency of the TV business. And there isn’t.
Network beefs with Nielsen are a regular feature of the TV business. CBS briefly threatened to drop its contract with Nielsen in 2019 before coming to a new agreement, for instance. But the months-long nature of this current dispute — and the sustained pressure on the company from industry groups — feels different.
On Sept. 1, the Media Rating Council — a little-known oversight board that gives its stamp of approval to audience measurement firms — suspended Nielsen’s accreditation after a series of complaints from broadcasters and advertisers that the company had undercounted viewers during the pandemic and let the quality and size of its national ratings panel degrade.
The suspension prompted finger-wagging statements from several media companies: Disney has been “increasingly concerned with inaccuracies and irregularities” in Nielsen data. ViacomCBS is “very disappointed” with Nielsen’s “complete lack of accountability for drastically undercounting TV audiences.” Even before the suspension, NBCUniversal put out an open letter to the industry calling for a new system of measurement and put out a request for proposals to more than 50 analytics firms, Nielsen included, to design a more modern system for the streaming era.
Practically speaking, not much will come of the suspension in the short term. Nielsen, led by CEO David Kenny, will keep collecting ratings data and supply it to clients. No one has dropped the company’s service, and no new standard is likely to emerge before the start of the fall TV season Sept. 20 — the day the Media Rating Council’s suspension of Nielsen’s national ratings accreditation takes effect. (The suspension will last until fixes are made to the council’s satisfaction.)
“This is likely a short-term situation because large ad buyers won’t tolerate a lack of a standard,” says Matt Voda, CEO of marketing analytics firm OptiMine. “It’s too inefficient, and the marketplace needs a standard currency to be effective long-term.”
Nielsen seemed to acknowledge as much in its statement about the suspension, saying it “will not impact the usability of our data” even as the company noted it will work with the MRC on resolving the issues that led to the suspension. It also pledged to “focus on innovating our core products.”
Should Nielsen fall out of favor, likely the best-positioned company to fill the void would be Comscore, the online measurement giant. It also offers TV products and already works with a host of big media companies. “Panel-based approaches are still rather effective, but they need to become integrated with larger and more involved systems that incorporate machine learning, speed, reliability and the many other adtech offerings that have become table stakes in today’s measurement market,” says Scott Klass of audio measurement company Veritonic.
One other potential outcome could be that companies develop or buy proprietary measurement tools. That’s already happened with such platforms as Netflix — which typically treat viewing data like state secrets, meaning complete, contextualized information rarely sees the light of day.
But Voda sees that as a less likely future for the ad-based business. “New standards will emerge because of the need for transparency and buying efficiency,” he says. “The industry needs a common way to keep score.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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