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Madison Avenue Worries Over Showdown Between CBS, Nielsen

CBS and Nielsen have many good reasons to fight. But Madison Avenue hopes the two can find peace.

An impasse in recent contract negotiations has led Nielsen to revoke CBS’ access to its audience data, which has long served as a benchmark for how TV advertising prices are set. CBS said Thursday it intended to “continue to employ the many viable alternatives available to us” to measure viewership, including data from rival Comscore. Nielsen has said it is in discussions with CBS. Their deal lapsed on December 31.

The showdown has the advertising industry wringing its collective hands. “GroupM would like the two parties to come to an agreement for the benefit of the industry,” the large ad-buying unit of WPP said in a statement.

CBS and Nielsen declined to comment.

Media buyers say they recognize the issues behind the donnybrook. CBS has come to place more emphasis on rival Comscore for measurement of local TV audiences and, as such, thinks Nielsen ought to cut the price of a contract with annual value estimated at more than $100 million. Nielsen has been rolling out new local-audience methodologies.

At a time when more TV viewers are migrating to on-demand, streaming video, however, much of the media industry is exploring new ways to measure viewership that don’t always hinge on the traditional method: Nielsen’s count of the number of viewers between 18 and 49 who see the ads that accompany their favorite programs at a particular time and date.

The current standoff is also indicative of a new executive managing the CBS relationship with Nielsen. David Poltrack, CBS Corp.’s chief research officer, announced in October that he would start to step back from some of his duties as he moved toward retirement in mid-2019. Radha Subramanyam, who was named executive VP and chief research and analytics officer of CBS Television Network in November 2017, is now responsible for overseeing all research and audience-measurement functions. The two are known to have different negotiating styles.

Some ad executives think the threat of CBS working without Nielsen data is a viable one, but also problematic. “Bottom line, switching off Nielsen is hard – not impossible, but hard – and would take significant long term planning. Could that happen in the future?  Maybe,” said one media buyer. “But both sides need each other short term.”

Without Nielsen, suggested another executive, advertisers would have to rely on one type of audience data to measure viewership for CBS programming and then use Nielsen for all the others.

“Buyers are time-pressed and aren’t looking for more work,” this executive said. “Doing it twice is not really an option.”

Advertisers should be concerned if they aren’t able to get Nielsen data for CBS, this person said. “We are telling them you can’t go nuclear and just wipe out CBS” data, this executive said. “That’s not good for anybody.”

If CBS and Nielsen didn’t have this dust-up, said buyers, some other media company would likely scrap with the measurement titan. In past months, NBCUniversal ad-sales chief Linda Yaccarino has been vocal in recent years about what she views as measurement shortcomings.  “This is going to be the first volley in a long-term fight,” said one of the buyers.

Coming up with new ways to count viewers upon which everyone can agree, however, probably can’t be done when two important players are having a disagreement. If CBS and Nielsen can mend fences, buyers suggested, they might be able to spur new discussion about how best to proceed when it comes to counting viewers for video over the long term.

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