NBCUniversal Says Nielsen Total Audience Measures Not Ready for Primetime

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TV’s efforts to revolutionize the way its audiences are measured in an increasingly digital world may be about to hit a snag, thanks to an argument over the quality of a new yardstick.

In a letter sent earlier this week, NBCUniversal’s top ad-sales executive told Nielsen, the company devising a metric to tabulate audiences watching TV and streaming video across multiple outlets, that the system, which some executives hoped might be in place sometime in 2017, “does much more harm than good” and “is not ready for release.”

“The media industry is in dire need of clear and comprehensive total audience measurement,” said Linda Yaccarino, chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships at NBCUniversal, in a letter to Nielsen executives dated December 13. But Nielsen’s current solution “in its current form fails to deliver on this objective,” she said.

Yaccarino represents one of the largest portfolios of media properties in the U.S., thanks to NBCU’s ownership of everything from big broadcast outlets like NBC and Telemundo to cable networks ranging from USA to MSNBC, and her indication that she does not trust the system Nielsen is building is likely to keep other media outlets from adopting it quickly. Already, the influential media-buying unit GroupM, which represents $30 billion of ad spending across the U.S. and Canada, has indicated it wants the nation’s big media companies to agree on a common measurement framework to tally viewers across TV, digital and mobile. “I can tell you the technological capability could be available for next year’s upfront,” the company’s new president of investment, Lyle Schwartz, told Variety in November.

In a statement, Nielsen said it was moving forward with its technology. “Nielsen stands behind our Total Audience Measurement. Total Content Ratings is on schedule to syndicate data on March 1st  at which time Nielsen clients will be able to use the data for external purposes. Up until this time, the data being released to publishers and, subsequently, to agencies is for internal evaluation only. “

At issue, according to a variety of ad-sales executives at various media companies, are disputes over perceived gaps in Nielsen’s data; the cost of building infrastructure to house the new system that would power Nielsen’s new measures; and a broad degree of variance of adoption of the new service among media outlets. To make the system work, media companies must install software code across a wide variety of distribution points – mobile apps, video-on-demand interfaces, and more. But the process by which this has been done varies from TV network to TV network, these executives said.

Some media companies have placed a greater emphasis on particular kinds of content or specific methods of distribution. This means they may have installed the code at one or more of these venues, but not in others. Using the data to analyze viewership between, say, MTV and FX, these executives suggested, would not create apples to apples comparisons.

In her letter, Yaccarino took issue with multiple aspects of Nielsen’s product. Some of the company’s methods of data collection need to be vetted more seriously,” she said. And there is “limited participation/implementation across the industry, she added. “Some say ‘something is better than nothing.’ We disagree,” she said in the letter. “Bad, inaccurate and misleading data is far worse than no data at all.”

The brewing argument threatens to delay TV’s ability to monetize a growing throng of viewers consuming its programming via subscription video on demand outlets and mobile devices. One of TV’s main problems is that the massive linear audience it once provided to Madison Avenue is splintering rapidly. Where many programs once delivered a sizable, unified crowd of couch potatoes, most now provide a significantly smaller crop. Finding a way to aggregate a “total” audience watching a program across multiple screens could, conceivably, bring the size of a TV audience up and allow for an industry now fighting against digital migration to get more dollars for its viewership.

NBCU’s dissatisfaction with Nielsen’s product “will undoubtedly elevate concerns among investors in Nielsen and in TV-centric media companies,” noted Brian Wieser, a media industry analyst with Pivotal Research, in a note issued Thursday. The total measurement idea “was probably the best initiative we are aware of that would have helped national TV owners explain to stakeholders (marketers and investors in particular) that consumption of their content is not declining,” he added.

The dispute does not mean the concept is dead, however. Changing TV’s economic underpinnings is a process that often takes months. The industry moved in 2007 to so-called “commercial ratings” from measurement of traditional program viewership, agreeing to use viewers of commercial breaks up to three days after their initial airing. The process took months, and spurred backlash from a number of players, including various cable networks.

CBS, for example,  has publicly embraced the idea of measuring a broader audience of TV adherents. “The key for us going forward — and this is going to be very important; it’s getting better — is some form of total audience measurement,” said CBS CEO Leslie Moonves at a recent investor conference. “We think as long as things can get measured properly, we are going to be in far better shape than ever before.”