Big Media Companies Keep Smacking Nielsen in Public. Disney Has a Different Approach 

Nielsen Ratings Illustration Placeholder
Cheyne Gateley for Variety

Top executives from some of the nation’s biggest media conglomerates haven’t in recent months been shy about blasting Nielsen, the industry’s de facto measurement of success or failure. At Walt Disney Co., however, they’re humming a song that bears some resemblance to the farewell tune from “Mickey Mouse Club”: “See you real soon.”

Many media companies are casting about for new alliances with measurement upstarts and Nielsen rivals. Disney is too. But it’s also firming up a partnership with an interesting player in the counting-the-consumer game: Nielsen. And its pact represents a bet that the measurement giant will still be around in years to come, despite some significant gaffes in the past year.

Disney is a pilot member of a consortium working with Nielsen as it attempts to introduce a new system of measurement called NielsenOne that, as described, will attempt to count viewers no matter what screen they use to watch their favorite TV programs. Even as Nielsen ramps up its program, however, many of the media companies that use it are casting about elsewhere for solutions. NBCUniversal has tied up iSpot for a measurement trial that might encompass the company’s recent broadcasts of the Winter Olympics and the Super Bowl, as well as different programs airing in the first quarter. Discovery, soon to buy WarnerMedia, is working with Omnicom Media Group and two large advertisers, AT&T and State Farm, to test new ways of tabulating linear TV audiences using Comscore and VideoAmp. WarnerMedia has already unveiled a Nielsen alternative using all three of the aforementioned measurement firms, and Paramount Global is also pursuing new measurement ideas.

But Disney is betting that no matter how many business headlines the new audience-counting initiatives gain, Nielsen will still have some traction. “Nielsen today is sitting in the buying terminals of every agency. We want to make sure, if they are going to evolve their model, to be part of that discussion,” says Rita Ferro, president of Disney Advertising Sales, in an interview. “I don’t mean, by the way, that we are not challenging them every single day or having tough conversations with them every single day. I promise you we are. But we also understand the importance of making sure they are going to make changes to measurement that are for the better, and improve over what we currently have, which has been challenging.”

Disney has a sturdy ally. Publicis Media is one of the nation’s largest media-buying agencies — already signed on with NBCUniversal to test iSpot — and is working with Disney to help it shape Nielsen’s efforts. In our industry, there is no singular approach to accurate measurement,” said John Muszynski, an influential media buying executive who oversees investment for the U.S. operations of Publicis Media Exchange, in a statement. “We have a responsibility to our clients to help them navigate this uncertainty, so testing and learning with Nielsen, Disney and other players remains critical to uncovering the next industry currency.”

Such sentiment is a far cry from how other senior media executives have viewed Nielsen. “What does a C3 rating tell you anyway? Almost nothing. Age, gender, maybe? It’s practically useless,” said Linda Yaccarino, the global chairman of NBCU’s ad-sales division, in 2016, referring to Nielsen’s current bedrock audience measure. David Zaslav, who is certain to wield growing leverage as CEO of the soon-to-be-combined Discovery and WarnerMedia, said in August that he doesn’t “have a lot of hope for Nielsen,” adding:  “I think somehow as an industry we’re going to have to work our way out of it from a technology perspective and leave them in the dust because they just can’t get it together. It’s a shame.”

At issue is a critical quest. As more couch potatoes opt for the ease of streaming video on demand — and dozens of new venues eager to lure their subscription dollars — traditional TV is losing viewers, steadily, constantly and irrevocably. To remedy this, the networks want better accounting of audiences as they spread out to all kinds of new behaviors, whether they involve VOD playback or streaming at times of a consumer’s own choosing. And, with the ability for the streamers to use interactivity and technology to ferret out new kinds of information about TV watchers — location, household preferences, and more — there is a good foundation for scrapping the current Nielsen-based system in favor of helping advertisers find narrower but lucrative niches of customers that might include first-time mothers; so-called “auto intenders” in the market for a new car; or young men interested in buying tickets to a new super-hero movie about to open exclusively in a physical theater.

The networks aren’t the only ones who see the need for new measurement architecture.  Procter & Gamble, one of the nation’s largest and most-scrutinized advertisers, indicates it wants a change. “There must be a better way,” said Marc Pritchard, the consumer-packaged goods giant’s chief brand officer, in a speech delivered Thursday. “Isn’t there a way to buy and place ads synchronized to when people are actually watching — matching ad supply with viewing demand? Can’t we avoid having the same ad run on the same show over and over again? Isn’t there a way to eliminate buying ad inventory based on audience forecasts that we know are wrong? Could we ever eliminate the need for audience guarantees, which are inherently inefficient?”

The executive said P&G would commit “to work with broadcasters to develop and test approaches that will eliminate the current system.”

Nielsen hasn’t helped itself in the recent past, unveiling egregious mistakes. The company has been under intense scrutiny for months, after acknowledging it undercounted audiences during the coronavirus pandemic. In December, it revealed that a “software issue” resulted in its delivering erroneous tabulations of so-called “out of home” audiences — people watching video content in hotels, bars, offices and more — since September of 2020. At present, its national and local TV-ratings services operate without accreditation from the Media Rating Council, an industry body that certified measurement operations, a dynamic that has opened the door to TV networks striking alliances with Nielsen rivals and measurement upstarts.

And yet, something funny seems to be happening. The networks railing against Nielsen continue to do business with it. During a call with investors earlier this week, Nielsen CEO David Kenny noted that top media companies, among some of Nielsen’s biggest customers, keep paying Nielsen for its services, even when they lack MRC backing. In its fourth quarter, Nielsen saw measurement revenue rise 3.7% to $647 million, up from $624 million.  All of Nielsen’s top clients have renewed contracts in the past three years, said Kenny, and while national TV clients have been “vocal” critics in the recent past, they “have all grown business with us.”

Other TV executives acknowledge that Nielsen will probably stick around in some form. Many TV networks have vowed to start doing ad deals this year based on so-called “alternative currencies,” hoping to increase the volume of ad commitments that hinge on something other than Nielsen rating guarantees. But some believe Madison Avenue won’t commit much to that, at least initially. “We think it’s going to be a Nielsen-plus solution,” says Peter Olsen, president of ad sales for A+E Networks, in an interview. “I would not call it alternative currency as much as something additional.”

There are some good reasons for advertisers to keep Nielsen — or something like it — in the mix. The new measurement currencies being offered are ultimately backed by the networks themselves, the equivalent of the student telling the teacher what grade homework should get.  Many advertisers would still like an independent arbiter to sit in judgement of who’s watching their commercials. But they may not be as rigid as they have been in the past, because many are allowing Google, Facebook and other new-media venues to supply proof of effectiveness in social media and search. And there is still the lingering question of investment: Do any of the networks and any of their new partners have millions to invest in an entirely new measurement infrastructure that isn’t likely to scale industry-wide?

Disney isn’t ignoring current trends. The company on Wednesday unveiled an expanded alliance with Samba TV, a measurement company, that examines impressions across Disney’s broader portfolio. Hyundai Motor America, not a small advertiser, has already utilized the technology, and Publicis Media is expected to test it weeks to come.

But the company clearly recognizes it can’t favor one potential measurement solution over another, particularly when so many elements of tabulating viewers remain in flux. Disney sees a wide range of partners stand at the ready, and advertisers, ultimately, will decide which is best. Slamming Nielsen in public now might not pay off in the future. Few media companies have an innate ability to understand that it’s a small world, after all.