Nielsen Accreditation Was ‘Threatened’ by Performance Issues Before Hiatus Request, Media Rating Council Says

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The months-long boxing-match between Nielsen and the TV networks over how their audiences are measured looks likely to enter another round.

The media-industry body that measures the credibility of Nielsen’s ratings measurement suggested the company requested a hiatus from its industry accreditation Thursday knowing that its backing was already “threatened”  by “some deep-rooted, ongoing performance issues.”

The Media Rating Council, an industry-backed organization that examines the companies that provide audience-measurement services, said in a statement Thursday that Nielsen needed to maintain transparency with its clients and suggested that any hiatus needed to be approved before it could be considered official. Earlier in the day, Nielsen said it intended to move forward without the MRC’s backing, meaning that its decades-old TV ratings — the standard by which advertisers measure the performance of TV programs —would have no common standard upon which to be judged.

The maneuver is the latest step in a protracted battle between two venerable institutions, both of which are grappling with fast changes in the way they measure viewership that is quickly migrating to new digital and streaming windows.

The networks have alleged Nielsen changed protocols during the coronavirus pandemic that resulted in undercounting of the TV audience over the past year. The networks say Nielsen kept field agents from maintaining technology in individual homes of viewers who take part in Nielsen’s measurement process and, while including homes in its panel whose owners had relocated owing to pandemic conditions. While Nielsen has pledged to rectify the matter, the networks have not been satisfied. In May, the MRC determined Nielsen likely undercounted TV audiences in February of this year.

If Nielsen wins a hiatus, it won’t be an indefinite one. “A hiatus period may last for up to six months, and a service has an option to request a second six-month hiatus. In no case can a hiatus period extend beyond 12 months,” the MRC said Thursday. “If the service does not re-engage in the MRC’s audit and accreditation process by the end of the hiatus period,
accreditation of the service will be formally revoked.”

Executives at Nielsen believe a hiatus will solve many of the issues that vex the TV networks. “This hiatus allows everybody to step back and find the best way to evolve measurement in a manner that will benefit the entire industry as tech and audiences evolve. We all need the best estimates of true audience behaviors,” said Mainak Mazumar,  Nielsen’s chief data and research officer, in a statement.  Nielsen. “So, really, we agree with VAB on one thing — the need for change! We also want that change to be inclusive, cross media measurement that benefits both media sellers as well as media buyers. When it comes down to it, we are fully committed to the audit oversight by the Media Rating Council, and we look forward to an accreditation process driven by actual data science, not member’s voting in their self interest.”

The matter appears far from closed. “Because of the totality and the gravity of these issues, we believe the matter requires further consideration by the full MRC Board before a conclusion on the National Television Service’s accreditation status is reached,” said George Ivie, CEO of the MRC. “In addition, Nielsen was previously invited to a meeting of the MRC Television Committee scheduled for next week to address these matters directly with the committee, and this invitation remains in place.”

Formed at the behest of the U.S. government in the wake of TV’s quiz-show scandals of the 1950s, the MRC conducts audits of companies that measure media to determine whether they are in compliance with industry standards.