Nielsen’s Cross-Platform TV Data to Get Limited Rollout in March

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Ryan Huddle for Variety

In the future, TV networks will be able to boast of how hot shows on the order of “This Is Us,” “NCIS” and “Modern Family” are viewed across computer screens, mobile phones and, of course, TV sets. In March, however, only a few will do so.

After several weeks of back-and-forth, Nielsen and the media companies it serves have agreed to a rather limited rollout of what has been known in the industry as “total content ratings,” or a measure of how TV programs are viewed across several different kinds of venues. On March 1, TV networks that have implemented technology that allows content to be measured on various platforms will be able to release that data about their own shows to the public, said Jessica Hogue, senior vice president of product leadership at Nielsen, in an interview. In turn, she added, “we will then provide that same information to the agencies, so that they have access to the same information the market does.”

No one, however, will be able to gain access to measurement data about rivals, unless those companies make their own public releases – ensuring that any push by Nielsen to measure a broader audience for TV programming will be a slow one.

The limited nature of the rollout of the much-anticipated data illustrates the challenges Nielsen has faced in gaining acceptance for it. No one in the media industry disputes the need for a new way to measure viewership that has come unhitched from the traditional TV screen. But several outlets have raised concerns about the quality of Nielsen’s data and the cost of implementing an infrastructure that would help generate it.

“We want to respect clients who are ready to release the information,  and support them in doing so,” said Hogue, “but also respect that and limit any comparisons for those clients that may not want to have the data shared.”

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Nielsen had anticipated a more robust rollout of the data this Spring. But late last year, Linda Yaccarino, chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships at NBCUniversal, suggested the data was limited and faulty and urged Nielsen not make it widely available until more companies were measuring more of their programming across various screens.  “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.”

Nielsen executives believe the data is sound. At issue, according to executives on both sides of the negotiations, is the extent to which some of the big media companies have put into place the nuts and bolts of Nielsen’s new system. To make it 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, according to various executives. 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.

No matter who chooses to release the new measurements, the fact remains the Nielsen data is out there. Will networks that have implemented the technology attempt offer ad deals based on it when the TV’s “upfront” market opens in May? And will Madison Avenue accept the terms? If that’s the case, the companies lagging behind may choose to place more effort in getting up to speed.