Nielsen Shares Surge on Report Company Could Be Sold to Private Equity Group

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Shares of media-measurement kingpin Nielsen Holdings PLC surged more than 40% Monday after The Wall Street Journal reported the company had started talks with a group of private-equity firms, including Elliott Management Corp., for a sale that could be valued at approximately $15 billion, including debt.

Elliott Management has a reputation for pressing for big changes at the companies in which it invests, and has in the past called for different management of companies including Barnes & Noble. Interpublic Group and AT&T. In 2019, Elliott, founded by billionaire Paul Singer, told the telecommunications giant its acquisition of the company once known as Time Warner as well as satellite distributor DirecTV had “eroded AT&T’s business focus and shareholder value.” Elliott in 2018 prodded Nielsen to put itself up for sale, citing the price of its stock.

“As a matter of company policy, Nielsen does not comment on market rumors or speculation,” said Connie Kim, a Nielsen spokesperson, via email.

A sale is not a fait accompli, the Journal reported, and indeed, there have been reports in the past that a sale of Nielsen, supported by Elliott, was in the works.

Nielsen is in the midst of a months-long joust with some of its biggest clients, the nation’s TV networks. The networks and their owners have grown disenchanted with Nielsen’s ability to count viewers who may watch their favorite programs via digital means, on mobile screens on through streaming video. Nielsen has lost industry accreditation for its national TV ratings service, and is working on a new measurement methodology that would tabulate unduplicated cross-stream viewership, but it will not be rolled out in full for several months. Meanwhile, many of the media companies, including NBCUniversal, WarnerMedia and others have struck pacts with new measurement vendors to create so-called “alternate currencies” in time for the industry’s next “upfront” ad-sales market.

A sale to a private-equity group wouldn’t necessarily bode well for the business of counting TV audiences, which requires new investment and research as consumers change longstanding habits. “It is very hard to be nothing but cynical about this company and its leadership, should one care a whit about the actual work of getting TV/video/media measurement right for hyper-modern media time,” said Tim Hanlon, chief executive of Vertere Group, a consultancy that works with media and advertising companiess.

Shares of Nielsen were recently up as much as 32%, after settling down from initial activity after the Journal report. Shares stood at $23.02, up 31.40% or $5.50 a share. to $23.02 per share. The company’s previous 52-week high was $28.42 per share.