Nielsen: Technical Error Causes Months of False TV Ratings

Ratings Concensus

A software bug has resulted in TV ratings being allocated incorrectly among broadcast and syndication programming since March, according to executives at Nielsen, the measurement service whose rankings form the basis of how advertisers pay for TV commercials.

At issue is a process used by the company when it moves from its initial survey of national ratings to its final one. When Nielsen calculates its early “fast national” ratings, some sources of viewership are not properly labeled and the data is put aside as “all other tuning” until it can be identified and tabulated properly. But Nielsen has discovered that some of that early unidentified data was improperly attributed to ABC programming, explained David Poltrack, chief research officer for CBS Corp., who said CBS contacted Nielsen about the issue three weeks ago and partly spurred the company’s investigation.

Because of the error in its systems, “we started to credit that viewing to different programs,” said Patricia McDonough, Nielsen’s senior VP of planning policy and analysis, in a Friday conference call with reporters. “Some of that was done to the wrong source.”

Executives said 98% to 99% of ratings would not be affected by more than .05 of a ratings point. Cable networks and local programming are unaffected by the snafu.

The issue came to light, Poltrack said, when CBS noticed ratings for a broadcast of ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” were increasing between the “fast national” tabulation and the final one, even though the show was preempted in two markets so that local stations could show home-team NFL football games.  What CBS found, Poltrack said, was that all of the unidentified views in the “fast national” data were “going to ABC. None of it was going to the proper network. It was all going to ABC. That resulted in ABC getting a big bump.”

In a statement, ABC said, “Our entire industry relies upon Nielsen for accuracy and veracity, and we hope that they can quickly resolve this issue.   We’re confident that the momentum we’ve seen across the network so far this season will continue, including delivery of the #1 new drama and the #1 new comedy on television.” Nielsen executives declined to specify which networks were affected most.

Nielsen said it uncovered a technical error on Oct. 6 that revealed incorrect measurement of national network TV ratings over several months, resulting in the incorrect attribution of “small amounts of viewing.” The error was introduced on March 2, the company said. The glitch affected both primetime and total day ratings, executives said.

Executives from at least two broadcast networks expect to be awarded some degree of viewership they might otherwise have lost. “The numbers are not very large for us,” Poltrack said. But the data could “make a difference between [being] first or second for the week, or being up versus last year, or being flat versus last year,” he said.

The measurement hiccup comes as Nielsen is under pressure to measure all the new ways consumers watch video content that was once solely distributed by television. Nielsen has made strides to include viewing of streaming video available on desktops and laptops, smartphones and mobile tablets. But TV networks, who have seen their traditional ratings decline as would-be TV viewers splinter off to see video through this new panoply of methods, want the company to move more quickly to draw all views into a single tabulation that would show advertisers TV draws the mass of viewers they say they covet from the medium.

Glitches in data collection are not uncommon, said Poltrack, but TV networks want to be more certain that Nielsen is monitoring its efforts. “We’d like to know what operational thing you’re going to put in place so that you discover it, as opposed to us.”

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  1. The Sunday (10.12.14) NYT’s headline reads: “TV Ratings by Nielsen Had Errors for Months.” Hence, TV Journalists and Journalists who cover TV (& Media) should be focusing on the accuracy and reliability of the entire medium measurement. That is the epic story here for all concerned.

    Soon to retire Nielsen SVP, Pat McDonough, has been forced to defend the TV ratings mill, while inscrutable CEO, Mitch Barns, remains hidden, like Kim Jong-un. What is Nielsen hiding? It’s time for the FTC to confront the ratings monopoly and force the issue of professional scientific accountability.

    Enough is enough. Nielsen is now working on plans to increase the apparent “statistical reliability” of its ratings by appearing to significantly reduce the standard errors (SE) of its estimates. In fact, Nielsen will be diminishing the “statistical validity” (i.e., accuracy) of its ratings estimates. Instead of tabulating (i.e., counting) the actual viewership from NPM (Nielsen People Meter) Households, as it ought to, Nielsen will model (i.e., arithmetically guess) the sample panel’s viewing data in a substantial portion of its newly “Expanded Sample Frame.” And it ought to be noted that the expansion will come predominantly from households equipped solely with “archaic” set meters, not modernized People Meters (i.e.,GTAM/STPM). How shameful!

    In its efforts to be all things to all potential customers, Nielsen is destroying the core values of its company and its products. And trust? That’s a pipe dream. Arthur C. Nielsen admonished: “Watch every detail that affects the accuracy of your work.” However, when management roots out institutional memory for the sake of profit and popularity, this is what happens.
    (Schiavone Is Former NBC Research Chief & Chairman, CONTAM, 1990 to 1999)

  2. Nielsen’s beloved SVP, Pat McDonough, who is soon to retire, has been forced to defend the ratings mill while inscrutable CEO, Mitch Barns, remains hidden in silence, like Kim Jong-un . What is Nielsen hiding? We know what they are revealing. Time for the FTC to confront the ratings monopoly. Enough is enough.

  3. Retiring Pat McDonough, Nielsen’s beloved SVP, is forced to defend company while inscrutable CEO, Mitch Barnes, remains silent. What is Nielsen hiding? We know what they are revealing. Time for the FTC to confront the ratings monopoly. Enough is enough.

  4. Dawn says:

    Now I know why some of the good new shows were cancelled, and some of the most stupid
    sitcoms are still on.

  5. LinBar says:

    Too funny! Now I understand why some of the most idiotic shows with laugh tracks are rated so high.

  6. ps119c says:

    When the corrections are made, Lena Dunham’s “Girls” will be #1.

  7. steve says:

    Is this why there are so many crappy shows now?

  8. Ribit says:

    The technology exists to track what every connected TV household (not including over the air) is watching at any time of the day. The data exists to cross-reference these viewing habits to demographic and psychographic characteristics of the viewers. If this data were analyzed and reported, the advertising rates would plummet. The findings would show that government-dependents are the largest viewership but the most unlikely to purchase the products being advertised.

  9. taosnow says:

    Ooops……those were the Leslie Neilson ratings……wait a sec…we’ll get back ta ya……

  10. jbspryjbspry says:

    A software bug has resulted in TV ratings being allocated incorrectly among broadcast and syndication programming since March, according to executives at Nielsen, the measurement service whose rankings form the basis of how advertisers pay for TV commercials.
    After the error was discovered, a re-toting of the figures revealed that no one anywhere in the North American continent (excepting a small village in Central Mexico which had lost bus service due to a bridge collapse caused by heavy rains) watched any television in the last six months.

  11. Tom says:

    so is Neilson going to make up the difference in advertising costs that this has caused?

  12. JNH says:

    Does anyone pay attention? The folks running ads do, very much. That is what the rating are for – and arguing.

  13. KeepYourPlan says:

    I knew 100 people didn’t watch CNN.

  14. Gene says:

    People are still watching tv? Like cable tv? I unplugged years ago, decades ago, and I’m so much better off. Why pay all that money to watch commercials and hubris? Idiots.

  15. Chad Dickman says:

    The Nielsen ratings system is an antiquated scam. It’s not accurate and needs to go away. There are better ways to track real ratings.

  16. That could explain the horrible programming on the networks. I always wondered why half of those shows were being aired.

  17. Ron Paris says:

    MSNBC numbers are actually lower then the error numbers.

  18. Lou says:

    Millions of Advertising dollars could be a boon for MSNBC and CNN getting 10 more viewers each, glad Nielsen was on top of it…

  19. vinny says:

    I wonder if they cancelled shows because these errors.

  20. LOL No, it;s no error that MSNBC and CNN only have 7 viewers total between the two of them.

  21. jim pinson says:

    I received a call from Nelson and was asked a few questions and told I would be receiving logs to list my viewing. No logs. Could it be because the questions asked were just enough to know l’m a conservative?

    • Jack Kennedy says:

      had same experience last year and before about 5 years ago ………….. must NOT ALLOW input from the Real Americans

  22. Goyo Corredor says:

    “resulting in the incorrect attribution of “small amounts of viewing.””


    No worries, Advertisers.

    It’s lame stream media.

    It doesn’t matter which acronym.

    It’s all “small amounts of viewing”.

  23. paul mlotkowski says:

    Bring back The Crazy Ones…oh, wait. Too late.

  24. TJG says:

    So MSNBC and CNN ratings might actually be lower?

    That seems impossible.

    • MM says:

      MSNBC’s could not possibly be any lower. The only people watching it now are relatives of the figures on at any given moment.

  25. lhansen11 says:

    I wonder how many shows were cancelled in the interim…..Longmire?

  26. ancientemplar says:

    sounds like exit polling

  27. EK says:

    Throw the bums out! Antiquated, irrelevant measure of TV viewing which savvy advertisers pay less and less attention to. We’re well ino the 21st Century for crissake. Time to move on.

  28. Sam Dennis says:

    nothing really new here, Radio and Television rating systems have always been flawed ….

  29. Sam Draken says:

    Thats what happens when you outsource your software to INDIA!

  30. hogboy says:

    all these people including hillary clinton use the acronym “” snafu”” pretty loosly,, but in this case it was accurate,,, situation normal all fucked up !!

  31. Barry bin Inhalin says:

    Right –

  32. This must mean everything on TV does suck

  33. Francis Xavier says:

    so, Nielsen is just like our elections and our mainstream media…the ratings are relative to the donations to the DNC

  34. azschumi says:

    You mean that MSNBC’s and CNN’s ratings are actually lower?

  35. cp27 says:

    Could this explain ABC World News Tonight ‘beating’ NBC Nightly News in all the demos for the first time in a decade?

  36. Brian Roberts says:

    As anyone who has ever looked at the STB data can tell you, Nielsen dramatically overstates household delivery. The only reason the entertainment industry continues to use an inaccurate sample-based service is precisely because they deliver false numbers.

    • Joe Smoe says:

      Correct. This is largely due to some exceptionally incompetent mid-level managers at Nielsen. The organization as a whole is a mess, but that of course is an upper management problem.

  37. Indepcon says:

    This would explain why Ed Schultz is still on the air.

  38. Tel says:

    Good. Bring back ENLISTED.

  39. I am not Barry says:

    If you are MSNBC and your rating is .0.00005%, then the error is enough to entirely erase or double your viewership.

  40. jerry2286 says:

    So I guess CNN’s ratings will still be in the toilet.

  41. PhD says:

    Total non-sense. Neilsn ratings have always been rigged.

  42. allenahansen says:

    Does anyone still even watch network TV?

    • What a ridiculous statement! Even the Breaking Bad finale had only 10 million and change viewers while the Blacklist consistently gets 10-12 million viewers. Game of Thrones? 7 million. Put it in perspective for you. The Voice? 14

      • nerdrage says:

        I think he meant, does anyone under 50 still watch network TV? To advertisers, they are not people, hence the confusion.

        It’s all deck chairs on the Titanic anyway. Just wait till it’s all on Netflix and Amazon, and they can create and cancel shows at will, never reporting bupkis for ratings, because they have no one to report to.

  43. I don’t know why I find this hilarious in a sort of “I don’t give a darn” way. I just imagine all these shark executives snorting coke for days, panicking and pulling their hair out over .0.00005% of a rating point.

  44. SSMcDonald says:

    Right! we believe you! Nielsen promotes unacceptable programming for months (and most of today’s network television is unacceptable tripe). Nielsen’s “report” costs the advertisers extra because they end up advertising on an inappropriate program………And then 5 Months later it’s: excuse us, we made an error.

  45. Fedhup says:

    Yeah, because it couldn’t be that TV shows really suck these days with all their liberal memes and the news is just propaganda for TNITWH. Nah, that can’t be it.

  46. daniel says:

    Why on earth does Nielsen still exist? When cable boxes, DVRs and Tivos know exactly what people watch, who needs Nielsen’s estimates? Sounds like another of Hollywood’s creative accounting rackets.

  47. Realist says:

    Appears Nielsen purchased the voting machines from Chicago and Gary, IN to tabulate ratings for TV shows. Since most of the people affected by false ratings are liberals, it serves them right.

  48. Bob says:

    Why do they bother? TV from the networks is so bland and low IQ that hardly anyone watches anymore. It is all totally moronic and pure fantasy which only vegetables watch. Intelligence is so rarely applied as to be mindless.

  49. Dennis says:

    Maybe A&E will reconsider the cancellation of LONGMIRE now, thus, once again, giving me a reason to watch said network.

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