Nielsen changes ratings reporting

'Heroes' flap forces service to reverse course

Following howls of protest from networks and ad buyers, Nielsen has decided to abandon its controversial “Heroes” rule.

Ratings monopoly came under fire last month when it revealed its decision to let networks count multiple broadcasts of the same show as a single broadcast, artificially inflating a show’s performance. Nets had known about the change for months but didn’t think anybody would use the rule so quickly — until NBC decided to do so.

“NBC’s actions were completely consistent with Nielsen reporting policy,” the numbers company said in a carefully crafted statement released Tuesday. “However, as a result, Nielsen received a significant amount of feedback from its clients in which concern was expressed regarding the consequences of this processing change.”

“Feedback” was actually more like “howls of protest,” with multiple nets and other parties denouncing the rules shift. The reason was that the change meant that no official numbers were reported for the actual “Heroes” premiere, making it harder to judge NBC’s Monday-night performance. What’s more, since a low-rated Saturday broadcast was factored out of NBC’s overall ratings perf for premiere week, net boosted its overall standings for the week.

Even worse, the rule change actually had an impact on the network standings for the first week of the season. Because of the change, NBC was able to claim it tied ABC for the lead among adults 18-49. Had the rule not been in place, ABC would have captured first place by itself.

In truth, it’s unlikely many nets would have immediately started taking advantage of the “Heroes” rule. That’s because, in order for all broadcasts to be combined, a net must air the same exact national advertisements in each broadcast — hard to do when nets have already sold ad time months in advance.

Nonetheless, “Clients told us that it was essential for the ratings to the individual telecasts to remain available so that viewing to each telecast can be analyzed separately and to ensure there is no ratings gap in any time period,” Nielsen said.

Ratings agency said it agreed with the feedback and was “establishing a policy to prevent such a situation from recurring.” Starting immediately, if a broadcast net reairs the same episode, ratings for both the original and repeat will be reported.

“We do, however, still see the need to explore new reporting options to give clients increased flexibility in how ratings are produced,” Nielsen said. “With all the options available to report time-shifted viewing (via DVRs, video-on-demand, etc.), there is a need for increased flexibility in how linear programming is reported. As we pursue new ideas, we will ensure that any new option is additive and that it be available to all clients.”

While Nielsen claimed nets have asked for the original rule change, NBC research topper Alan Wurtzel said the Peacock never made such a request.

“This was not a rule we lobbied or asked for,” he said. “Once it came about and we had a situation that was consistent with it, we used it; now that Nielsen has changed the rules, we will follow that.”

(Michael Learmonth in New York contributed to this report.)