SpongeBob Squeezed

Courtesy of Nickelodeon; iStock

Nickelodeon ratings sink as parent Viacom cries foul and Nielsen defends its numbers.

A schoolyard brawl has broken out between kids TV powerhouse Nickelodeon and Nielsen, the company whose ratings determine advertising rates. Nick, long the leader in the space, has disputed what Nielsen says are double-digit ratings declines since September. Nielsen adjusted its audience sample in August, but it says it has conducted an internal review of the Nick data and found no errors. Still, Nick insiders hardly are satisfied with these assurances. During a November call with analysts, Philippe Dauman, CEO of parent Viacom, called the drop an "anomaly."

At stake for Nickelodeon are millions of dollars from such popular shows as SpongeBob SquarePants and iCarly. Nick accounted for about 25 percent of Viacom's $1.39 billion in ad revenue in fourth-quarter 2010. Already the ratings shortfall has caused Nick to dole out so-called make-goods to advertisers. And the network is on track to surrender its ratings crown to rival Disney Channel for the year among the coveted demo of kids ages 6 to 11 for the first time since Disney Channel launched in 1983.

"We're going to work with [Nielsen's] sample and program aggressively," says Nick spokesman Dan Martinsen. "We've had tough quarters before, and we always respond strongly." But network insiders hope an independent review by auditing agency the Media Rating Council, due in December, will correct the record. Nielsen didn't help its credibility when it admitted Dec. 5 that an earlier report claiming overall kids viewership was up -- which made the Nick decline seem even more ominous -- was wrong.

Still, no one is disputing Disney Channel's ascendant ratings. The Nick nemesis is up 8 percent in total day and 11 percent in primetime viewers among kids 6 to 11, though Nick still will win the year in kids 2 to 11. In addition, Disney Channel, home of Kim Possible and Wizards of Waverly Place, is now the leading network among girls, 40 percent of whom cite it as the "first channel I go to," according to Disney research. "The days of Nickelodeon being the only kids network are over," says Paul DeBenedittis, senior vp programming strategy at Disney Channels Worldwide, citing its diverse roster of series. "It's not one hit show, it's eight shows."

WHAT THE KIDS ARE WATCHING: According to Nielsen's latest data, Disney has edged Nick for the first time in decades, with the other kids networks farther back.

Disney Channel

  • Target Demo: 6-14
  • Top-Rated Show/Viewers: A.N.T. Farm (2.4 million)


  • Target Demo: 2-11
  • Top-Rated Show/Viewers: SpongeBob, iCarly (2.3 million each)

Cartoon Network

  • Target Demo: 6-11
  • Top-Rated Show/Viewers: Regular Show (631,000)

Disney XD

  • Target Demo: 6-14
  • Top-Rated Show/Viewers: Kickin'It (583,000)


  • Target Demo: 2-11
  • Top-Rated Show/Viewers: Caillou (171,000)

The Hub

  • Target Demo: 2-11
  • Top-Rated Show/Viewers: Goosebumps (88,000)
Top-rated show is in the channel's target demo. Source: Nielsen; season to date through Nov. 27