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Nielsen Faces ComScore as Digital Ratings Wars Heat Up

Preston Beckman had been listening to executives from Nielsen and ComScore snipe at each other for almost 10 minutes when at last he spoke up. “This is starting to sound like ‘Oklahoma!’ ” the former Fox and NBC scheduling executive said. “Anything you can do, I can do better.”

The occasion last week was an HRTS panel about the future of TV measurement, moderated by Variety co-editor-in-chief Andrew Wallenstein. That ComScore’s Gian Fulgoni and Nielsen’s Eric Solomon were talking smack — nerdy smack about data sets and methodologies — was no surprise. Their companies are in a race to become the gold standard for measuring video across digital and television platforms. It’s a competition from which neither may emerge a clear victor, but one that will likely benefit producers.

Last year, Nielsen began releasing total audience measurement data to clients who opted into the new product, which gauges viewership across television and digital. ComScore rolled out its own cross-platform tool this year after finalizing its merger with Rentrak. Nielsen and ComScore employ different methodologies, but both are trying to meet industry demand to bridge the measurement gap between linear television and digital.

To illustrate the width of that gap at the HRTS panel, FX research chief Julie Piepenkotter noted that by digital-world standards, TV miniseries “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” drew 259 billion views. That metric, Piepenkotter said, “is creating an extraordinarily false … and meaningless narrative.”

Data Difference
The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” viewership varied based on form of measurement.
259b No. of two-second “views” the series received
7.5m No. of viewers averaged in live-plus-seven ratings

And it is happening as digital encroaches on television’s advertising supremacy. A Magna Global study last year predicted that digital ad sales would overtake TV sales in 2016.

But new tools providing uniformity are unlikely to matter much to this year’s upfront ad sales. Nielsen will not release total-audience data until later this year — at the request of clients who do not want it to muddy the upfront waters. And although ComScore landed a deal with Viacom last month to provide cross-platform metrics to sell against, that data will be a supplement to traditional Nielsen ratings.

Where cross-platform numbers will matter soonest is in dealmaking between networks and studios. Networks have become serious about locking up more digital rights for the shows they air. Most continue to sell digital ads separately from television ads, but a reliable multiplatform measurement lends negotiating power to the studios, giving them a clearer picture of a show’s overall value.

It also potentially cracks the Netflix problem. The streaming service has been tight-lipped about viewership, even denying information to its producing partners. But Nielsen has, through audio-recognition software, begun gathering data on Netflix’s original series on behalf of clients who produce them. Those numbers will likely come in handy in future negotiations.

And should buyers and sellers decide to make multiplatform a bigger part of the 2017 upfront, they have a whole year to decide whose methodologies and data sets they like better.

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