Nielsen Could Delay Debut of Total Viewer Measurement Data (EXCLUSIVE)

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Ryan Huddle for Variety

The TV industry’s efforts to find a new yardstick to measure audiences watching their favorite shows on screens of a new design are running into headwinds.

After NBCUniversal sent a letter in mid-December questioning the validity of a long-gestating Nielsen effort to count viewers who watch TV shows via streaming-video and mobile devices, Nielsen has agreed to modify the way it releases the data, the measurement company said in a statement in response to questions from Variety.

Nielsen is said to have met with several of the nation’s big TV companies at the end of last year, according to people familiar with the matter, and executives from NBCUniversal and Fox Networks were among those critical of its methodologies.

“At the behest of our television network clients, we have modified the way in which we will be sharing data during the agency evaluation period, which begins in January,” Nielsen said. “We will be making certain reports available to agencies based on our clients and where they are in terms of implementation. These reports will evolve as more clients come online. This will allow media clients to customize the data they wish to share, whether it be to focus on particular platforms, programs or demographics. This decision is not based on any methodological issues, but rather, client readiness and their need to further evaluate data.”

NBCUniversal declined to make executives available for comment, and a Fox Networks spokesman could not be reached for immediate comment.

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 there are arguments over the quality of Nielsen’s data and the cost of implementing an infrastructure that would generate it.

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, 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.

On the other hand, Nielsen executives have for weeks now maintained that they believe in the quality of the new data. The company has been eager to make its “total content ratings” available to the industry, which would allow advertisers, media agencies and other TV clients to examine a third-party company’s tabulation of total performance across TV and digital. There is a sense that some TV companies may not like the Nielsen results. Some of the companies fare better than others when Nielsen’s digital viewing is measured, and in other cases, the numbers presented by Nielsen may not be as robust as what the TV companies have previously articulated to Madison Avenue.

NBCU’s Linda Yaccarino, chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships at NBCUniversal, took issue late last year with what she described as “limited participation/implementation across the industry,” and suggested Nielsen should not make the data more broadly 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.”

Finding a way to knit together a growing range of video-viewing behaviors could be a panacea for an ailing TV industry, where networks continue to struggle with declining linear ratings. The television economy is largely based on viewership of commercial breaks on linear television. With more consumers – particularly the younger ones advertisers desire most – moving to mobile tablets, time-shifted viewing and on-demand video streaming, its reach has declined significantly. Consider that the second-season finale of “American Idol” reached 38.06 million viewers in 2002. In contrast, the second-season finale of “Empire,” one of TV’s most popular programs, reached just 10.8 million in 2016.

Nielsen signaled Thursday that this most recent argument would not deter it from moving forward.  Many elements of its total-audience measures are already being utilized by TV networks, the company said.  “It is important to note that other aspects of the Total Audience framework including Digital Content Ratings, Total Ad Ratings, Out of Home, C3 data and OTT data are already in active use by our clients,” the company said in its statement.

Changing the financial underpinnings of the TV business has never been easy. In 2007, 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.

Nielsen suggested it would not pull back from its efforts to encourage broader adoption of total-audience measures.  “We are scheduled to meet with our Senior Research Council at the end of January, at which time we will be discussing with our media and agency clients the best mechanisms to make additional content ratings data available over the course of 2017,” Nielsen said.