Nielsen, Under Pressure and Under Audit, Takes Hiatus From Industry Backing

Nielsen Ratings Illustration Placeholder
Cheyne Gateley for Variety

Nielsen said it would move forward without the backing of the media industry’s Media Rating Council, the latest eyebrow-raising maneuver in a months-long feud between the media-measurement giant and the TV networks whose viewers it has counted for decades.

“We believe hiatus is the best course of action at this time and will allow us to focus on innovating our core products, continuing to deliver data that the industry can rely on and ultimately creating a better media future for the entire industry,” Nielsen said in a statement. Without the accreditation of the MRC, Nielsen’s decades-old TV ratings — the standard by which advertisers measure the performance of TV programs — have no common standard upon which to be judged.

To be sure, the move does not mean Nielsen’s ratings will cease to be used by TV networks and big media buying agencies. Executives expect the measurements to retain their central role. But they will, for an undetermined period of time, operate without a sort of “seal of approval” by the industry that uses it.

Nielsen’s maneuver is the latest in a long joust between the company and the TV industry. Last month, the VAB, the trade group representing the ad-sales efforts of the TV networks, called for Nielsen’s accreditation to be revoked by the MRC, citing Nielsen’s diminished ability to count viewership during the coronavirus pandemic.  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. The MRC had been in the midst of investigating the networks’ claims, with CEO George Ivie telling Variety that their concerns  “are something we take very seriously, but we have an independent process to execute.”

“We can confirm that we have received an accreditation hiatus request from Nielsen for their National TV service.  We expect to have more to say on this matter later today,” said David Gunzerath, senior vice president and associate director of the Media Rating Council, in a statement Thursday.

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.

Both sides are grappling with an increasingly complex issue: how to measure TV viewers who no longer rely on watching TV shows in traditional fashion? As more consumers migrate from linear TV experiences to on-demand binge sessions with their favorite streaming outlet, tracking them has become a tougher task. The remedy for this has been for media giants to cobble together new measurement techniques that show how much viewership they accumulate as TV fans move from one screen to another. A growing phalanx of data tools — set-top box patterns, shopping behavior, and web tracking —  has allowed many of the networks to build proprietary measurement products that let advertisers such as AT&T, Pepsi, and General Motors find pockets of their most likely customers, whether they be high-income technophiles, soda guzzlers, or first-time car buyers. Because each media company has crafted its own system, however, Madison Avenue fears the industry’s unified structure, built atop Nielsen ratings, is crumbling.

For its part, Nielsen is betting its move will help it move forward more quickly, according to a person familiar with the matter. Rather than get bogged down in a process before the MRC, the company feels the hiatus will free it to develop new measures and pursue new ways to implement them that will indeed result in a more comprehensive system for tabulating consumer interactions with media. The company has in recent months, unveiled a number of new efforts, including the addition of viewership data from DirecTV and Dish set-top boxes and Vizio smart TV’s into its national currency – a maneuver that could play a significant part in helping the industry track millions of views of streaming-video content  and the commercials that show up along them them. In July, Nielsen said it had plans to measure web traffic even as the industry prepares to give up “cookies,” digital identifiers that have come under scrutiny from privacy advocates.

The networks, however, don’t seem so sanguine about Nielsen’s announcement. “After months of Nielsen’s very public insistence that there nothing wrong with their ratings data, but now facing a slam-dunk VAB case for accreditation suspension, Nielsen has essentially announced ‘you can’t fire me, I quit’ just hours before the MRC suspension vote process is activated,” said Sean Cunningham, CEO of the VAB, in a statement. “What cannot be evaded or dodged is the level of all-industry intervention coming to Nielsen with a mandate of change-or-die transparency needed for going forward with any real credibility. The VAB will be pursuing the case for radical Nielsen change with more voracity than ever.”