TV Networks Demand Nielsen Submit to Audit in Battle Over Coronavirus Audience Counts

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CBS, ABC, NBC and other TV networks want the company that audits their audiences every day to submit to an audit of its own.

The VAB, an industry group that represents the TV networks to Madison Avenue, is demanding that Nielsen, the arbiter of TV ratings, submit to a third-party audit from Ernst and Young, the latest salvo in a battle between to the two sides over how TV audiences were counted during the coronavirus pandemic. The networks allege Nielsen let its system, which is the bedrock of advertising deals for TV programs, degrade as the nation went into lockdown, and undercounted TV viewership. Nielsen, meanwhile, has said it continues to have “full confidence” in the way it tabulates TV ratings.

“I am conveying to you in the strongest possible terms the VAB’s profound dissatisfaction and concerns with Nielsen’s handling of our industry’s months-long urging for rightsized remedies to shortfalls in the company’s COVID period TV usage and measurement data,” said Sean Cunningham, the CEO of the VAB, in a letter sent Wednesday to David Kenny, the CEO of Nielsen. As part of a potential remedy, Cunningham said, an independent auditor “will be tasked to verify the accuracy of Nielsen’s outcomes data during the March 2020 – March 2021 time period. As part of the independent “outcomes” audit process, the auditor will have the ability, autonomy and authority to create a recommendation that could include market-facing numerical adjustment factors.”

The VAB has asked for a response by Monday, April 19.

At issue, according to the networks, is a Nielsen decision to keep its field agents out of the homes that participate in the company’s measurement process. The networks are concerned that Nielsen did not maintain its outreach to panelists whose activity it uses to monitor viewing of TV programs, and also believe Nielsen counted homes that residents may have left during the pandemic as Americans relocated to be closer to family. In the letter, Cunningham said the networks believe Nielsen’s tabulations included a slight increase of “zero-viewing TV homes” and that Nielsen was grappling with “a 20 percent loss of the panel” during the pandemic.

“Nielsen is committed to providing reliable and accurate data to the media industry. We received VAB’s letter and we are in the process of evaluating our next steps,” the company said in a statement. In an interview with Variety last week, the company’s chief data and research officer, Mainak Muzumdar, said Nielsen believed it was tracking verifiable audience activity. “What we have seen is that the decline in linear is definitely increasing,” Mazumdar said in a previous interview. “There is an increase in streaming, but the decline in linear is not offset by total viewing.”

The skirmish between the networks and Nielsen takes place as the industry prepares for its annual “upfront” sales session, when U.S. TV networks try to sell the bulk of their commercial inventory for their next programming cycle. Many advertisers build out placement of their clients’ commercials by “mirroring” audience levels from the prior year, and any perceived discrepancy in the 2020 numbers would give the networks cause for concern.

This isn’t the first public squabble  between the networks and Nielsen to surface in recent months. In July of last year, Nielsen reversed a last-minute decision to not implement a new measure of so-called “out of home” viewing — audiences watching TV in offices, bars, hotels and the like — even though the networks had sought it. Nielsen cited the pandemic’s effects on viewership in those venues as a reason to delay launch of the new system. The networks, which had already established ad deals with the new measurement involved, went ballistic, and even demanded a public apology. Media outlets and advertisers have increasingly found themselves at odds as new technology forces changes in the systems both sides have relied upon for decades.