TV Networks’ Bid to Create Nielsen Rival Gets Support From Advertisers

Nielsen Ratings Illustration Placeholder
Cheyne Gateley for Variety

The TV networks aren’t the only ones who think their audiences need to be counted differently.

Big media-buying agencies and even a few advertisers are likely to help as the TV industry battles with Nielsen and continues to push for alternate systems of counting video viewers, whether they watch via traditional linear TV or a new streaming-video hub.

“We needed better measurement of consumers, and for whatever reason, they didn’t deliver,” says Kelly Metz, managing director of linear and advanced TV activation at Omnicom Media Group, one of the nation’s largest media buying agencies, referring to Nielsen. “It has opened the door.”

And created a gulf. After weeks of verbal jousting between Nielsen and the TV industry, the Media Rating Council, an industry body that certifies various audience-measurement methodologies, removed the industry accreditation that backs both Nielsen’s national and local ratings system, taking away any edge Nielsen might enjoy over a growing passel of firms that seek to measure media consumption.

Omnicom is expected to be one of the major ad companies taking part in a new “forum” created by NBCUniversal to examine audience-tabulation issues. Other big agencies are expected to participate as well, as the media industry and Nielsen appear to move further apart in the debate over how TV viewers ought to be counted in a business that has moved full bore into digital realms.

In a letter issued publicly earlier this month, Nielsen CEO David Kenny said the company understands “that we need to move faster in advancing our measurement because the audience itself is moving faster.” But TV executives confide privately that the industry has waited long enough. The Video Advertising Bureau, an industry group that represents TV companies to advertisers, has accelerated its own efforts to get networks and the ad sector to come together to find new measurement solutions.

A belief has emerged among media and advertising executives that Nielsen cannot or will not be able to update its systems to count modern audiences in a time frame that is sustainable to companies plunging millions into ad-supported streaming versions of Hulu, HBO Max and Paramount Plus, or even free, ad-supported services like Fox’s Tubi or ViacomCBS’ Pluto. And a consensus has formed, according to one of these executives, that the only way to prod Nielsen to move more quickly is to lend support to a rival measurement operation.

Even Procter & Gamble, one of the nation’s biggest and most influential advertisers, seems poised to consider new concepts. “The media landscape continues to disrupt, and as you know, there are alternatives being worked by a variety of parties,” the company behind Tide, Old Spice and Gillette said in a statement. “And regardless where this plane lands, we still call for all alternatives to have third-party, MRC-accreditation.”

Nielsen has pledged to unveil a new way to measure unduplicated audiences across linear and streaming, taking into consideration views that happen via smartphone and computer as well as TV. But that system, billed as “NielsenOne,” won’t be completed until the fall of the 2024 TV season. “We remain dedicated to serving the needs of the industry and are committed to ensuring the most robust media measurement available,” Kenny said. “We look forward to sharing these developments on an accelerated timeline.”

Already, NBCU has taken the industry’s lead in building another option. The Comcast-backed organization has solicited proposals from several dozen vendors to help create a measurement operation, and is expected to offer more detail later this month. The proposed new system is expected to consider both linear and digital viewing as well as provide data both on the reach and frequency that Nielsen typically dispenses, and on the new business outcomes advertisers are pressing for, such as website visits and product purchases.

“We are opening a window into a world where we choose our own measurement partners, choose who we trust,” Metz says.

But the process is fraught. In the rush to consider new options, TV networks and media agencies risk doing bespoke deals that can’t be compared across the entire industry. And there is significant concern that a new system with a genesis led by one of the media companies with audiences that will need to be measured won’t have the backing of an independent auditor.

NBCUniversal has been the most vocal on the subject, but other media companies are using restraint. According to one executive, some companies worry that they might have to push some advertisers into adopting a new system that has yet to be tested as Nielsen’s has — a difficult thing to do in public.

And of course, one major problem remains. After using Nielsen for decades, the industry is already having a tough time breaking away from it. Even without the MRC backing, Nielsen continues to tabulate its ratings, and TV networks continue to use its data to explain how its programs are faring.

Case in point: NBCU may be eager to help find new measurement solutions, but last week it was keen to tout the performance of its first broadcast this season of an NFL game, which saw the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeat the Dallas Cowboys. The company used a “total audience delivery” number to articulate how the game was viewed across TV and digital. And it spotlighted an “average minute audience” for digital and mobile viewing. How did it describe its most important category of viewership, the one that watches TV in linear fashion and which commands the medium’s highest ad prices? By using data from Nielsen.