After pause, Nielsen has commercial-ratings plan

Data may be too late for upfronts

Nielsen Media Research announced Tuesday a revamped schedule for the establishment of commercial-minute ratings, but it might not be implemented in time for a consensus at this year's upfront negotiations.

After several meetings with clients and retrenchment by the media measurement company, Nielsen said it would start to provide commercial-minute ratings and DVR playback information within its NPOWER software service by the end of the month. It then will roll it out to the All Minute Data File by late April and then a standardized format by the end of May so that everyone should have a usable commercial-ratings stream by then. Nielsen will measure live plus same-day playback, plus one-, two-, three- and seven-day playback.

That schedule is causing fast footwork in the media industry, which might try to come to a consensus within the next several months before the upfront negotiations start in earnest to see whether the currency can be moved from program to commercial ratings for the upcoming TV season. Last year's upfront negotiations were stalled for weeks while the networks sparred with media agencies over whether to use live or DVR-added ratings.

Several network executives said Tuesday that they weren't sure — given the need to make sure the data is correct and to get comfortable with the data — whether there will be enough time for that given the fact that Nielsen needed more time.

"I don't know how it could be used for the upfront," said Alan Wurtzel, president of NBC Universal television research. He said that NBC Uni hoped that the data would have been available in the fall so that by the time negotiations start, there was a comfort level on all sides about the data stream.

Artie Bulgrin, senior vp research/sales development at ESPN, agreed. "It's going to be awfully tough for the upfront," Bulgrin said.

The decision by Nielsen to offer commercial ratings has been delayed by several issues, including questions from cable channels over whether Nielsen Monitor Plus can tell the difference between local and national ads. Nielsen has put into place a solution for that beginning this month. It also has agreed to an MRC audit. It doesn't affect ESPN as much as it would other networks and the media agencies themselves.

"The question is whether they (agencies) are prepared to shift to a system that has commercial-minute ratings, something they find appealing, but they'll have really little time to digest how that will work," said Jack Wakshlag, Turner Broadcasting's chief research officer. Turner will be ready no matter what happens; so will CBS using a model that it has developed in two years of tracking the data already available, senior vp research David Poltrack said.

CBS is planning for that by starting to talk to clients and agencies now.

"We don't want this discussion to be taking place in May. We want this discussion to be taking place now," Poltrack said. "Hopefully we can come to some consensus and operational plan well in advance of the upfront."

"It will make for a very unique upfront," predicted Brad Adgate, senior vp research at New York-based Horizon Media.

One solution might be to move toward a live-plus-same-day program ratings system as a transition toward commercial ratings. NBC's Wurtzel said that, through the data, advertisers can tell the percentage of commercials viewed.

"It seems like a transition for this year that makes sense," Wurtzel said. "We can't go to commercial ratings because we don't know enough about them." He said that with a year of data, a lot more would be known about it for the 2008-09 upfront, making the decision smoother.

What could happen is a mixture of the two systems, depending on who is ready and who is not.

"The industry is going to have to settle on some combination of these streams to go forward," Poltrack said. "There is going to be, I'm sure, on the buyers and the sellers side an attempt to consolidate some of this data into more manageable streams."

Nielsen Media Research is owned by VNU Group, which also owns The Hollywood Reporter.