Nielsen Tells TV Networks Coronavirus Issues Still Being Resolved (EXCLUSIVE)

Nielsen Ratings Illustration Placeholder
Cheyne Gateley for Variety

Nielsen, the company that measures TV audiences every day, says it still needs a few weeks to get its counting procedures back to normal.

In a May 6 letter to TV networks and other clients, media-measurement giant Nielsen said it is still working to “resolve outstanding maintenance needs” in approximately 2700 homes that serve in its panel of consumers, and will likely not complete that work until the end of May. Nielsen has been under scrutiny for weeks by the big media companies who pay millions of dollars a year for its services after it acknowledged it had stopped sending field agents to homes during the coronavirus pandemic. The TV networks believe this has led to a significant undercounting of TV audiences for the past year.

“The complications include a year-long suspension of in-home field servicing of empaneled households and extensive changes to household withholding procedures that resulted in 9,400 impaired/compromised homes that remained in Nielsen’s 2020 and 1st quarter 2021 reported estimates to the market,” said Sean Cunningham, CEO of the VAB, a trade organization that represents the TV networks to Madison Avenue, in a statement.

The battle between Nielsen and the networks is likely to intensify. The industry’s annual “upfront” marketplace, when TV networks try to sell billions of dollars in advertising inventory for the next programming cycle, is slated to begin in a few short weeks. Nielsen ratings are the bedrock of how TV networks and media agencies set prices, and many advertisers build out placement of their clients’ commercials by “mirroring” audience levels from the prior year.

The skirmish is taking place at a heated moment.

As the networks see their audiences spend more time watching ad-supported streamers such as Hulu, Peacock, Discovery Plus, Tubi, Pluto TV and Paramount Plus, they are open to testing new measures. Smaller audiences mean media companies can sell other things than the number of total views. They can use technology and consumer data to identify first-time car buyers or expectant mothers — and craft deals based on the number of visits customers make to auto showrooms or on sales of movie tickets. As a result, there is palpable desire on the part of networks to use multiple measurement services and let advertisers decide which are most important.

TV executives believe Nielsen’s decision meant its sample started to include homes whose residents may have moved elsewhere in the country, leaving the company tabulating results from a home where no TV watching was taking place. The executives are also concerned that a lack of maintenance could have left some homes’ results not being tracked or tabulated adequately.

In the letter, signed by Peter Bradbury, Nielsen’s U.S. chief commercial officer, Nielsen appeared to acknowledge some homes were not monitored properly. Clients were told Nielsen has temporarily removed 1,143 homes from its sample, and removed 717 homes permanently. The company also said it “performed maintenance for 4,841 homes and they continue to contribute to reporting.”

The VAB had pushed for Nielsen to submit its recent research to a third party consultant, but Nielsen refused. On Monday, however, Nielsen is slated to make a presentation on its efforts to count audiences during the pandemic to the Media Rating Council, an industry organization has maintained media research standards for decade. Its membership includes most major media companies, media buying agencies and many big advertisers such as Walgreens, Unilever and Procter & Gamble.

Both Nielsen and the VAB have agreed to have the MRC review Nielsen’s activity and decide whether its efforts should be taken as is or, potentially, adjusted. George Ivie, CEO of the MRC, declined to comment on the meeting.

Nielsen has stood behind the integrity of its recent efforts. “Last year, as communities around the world were impacted by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, we innovated our panel procedures to protect the safety of our panelists and field staff and the integrity of our ratings, developing new ways to recruit and maintain our panels. We were able to return to pre-COVID processes and procedures in March this year,” Nielsen said in a statement. “We will share a detailed analysis for review with the MRC and our clients, and feel confident we will continue to provide the industry with the data they rely upon to transact with confidence.”