NBCU Bets On Olympics, Super Bowl in Bid to Out-Measure Nielsen

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While the colorful and grandiose Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony unfurls on TV, the company showing all the pomp has an equally elaborate project taking place off camera.

NBCUniversal has been one of the most vocal critics of Nielsen, the company that has for decades measured TV audiences and provided tabulations that serve as the bedrock of ad deals for the nation’s TV networks. To boost its efforts to offer an alternate means of counting the video-watching masses, NBCU is working with more than 30 different advertisers to test a new measurement tool it has built with iSpot.TV — and using the company’s Olympics and looming Super Bowl broadcasts as a sort of test run before trying to get more sponsors to embrace the system during the industry’s annual “upfront” ad-sales season later this year. No other TV events are likely to generate the large-scale viewership of NBC’s two sports broadcasts over the next 12 months.

“We are of the opinion that everyone needs better measurement, better data” around how audiences watch TV in an era when streaming, on-demand video is fast becoming ubiquitous. says Kelly Abcarian, executive vice president of measurement and impact at NBCU’s ad-sales division. “We think that there’s a need to accelerate.”

Nielsen is working on that task as well. It has enlisted Disney, Madison Avenue’s Interpublic Group and a host of others to test its own “NielsenOne” system of measuring linear and digital audiences that it hopes to have in place in coming months. But NBCU and its TV contemporaries have grown increasingly distrustful of Nielsen, citing errors it has made in counting viewers in recent months. The industry’s Media Rating Council has suspended its accreditation of Nielsen’s national and local ratings services. That hasn’t kept NBCU and others, however, from relying on Nielsen measures in touting successful TV programs like “Sunday Night Football.”

At issue is the quick adoption by even the most die-hard couch potato of new ways of watching TV favorites. Both the networks and advertisers crave a means of counting so-called “unduplicated” audiences as they toggle through an array of new viewing behaviors that can range from streaming ad-supported programs on Hulu to watching a big sports event live on NBC. If the networks can’t provide accurate counts of these tech-savvy crowds, then they risk leaving millions in advertising dollars on the table, because the new dynamics are drawing the linear TV audiences Nielsen measures depleted — and continuing to shrink.

A handful of advertisers have signed up with NBCU to “test and learn” the new iSpot system, relying on one of three tracks: Olympics viewership, Super Bowl crowds, or the performance of so-called “scatter” advertising in entertainment programs in the first quarter. NBCU struck a deal with Publicis Media to test measurement efforts earlier this year, but Abcarian says the company has signed up clients represented by many of the industry’s major media-buying agencies.

To drive acceptance of its new counting methodologies, NBCU is prepared to make its case in public. “Historically, we as media owners and the press have been very fixated on a single number, which is the ‘overnights,’ the ‘fast national’ primetime ratings” from Nielsen, says Dan Lovinger, a president at NBCU’s ad-sales division who oversees sales behind the Olympics. “Our position is that that’s all just a piece of the total pie nowadays, and people are looking more holistically at the total consumption.” He adds: “People are looking at things differently, and we need to report on them differently.” NBCU expects to make some of it iSpot data from Olympics and Super Bowl viewing available publicly, alongside Nielsen measures.

NBCU is treading uncharted terrain. Madison Avenue has for decades craved audience data that is backed by an independent third party, typically the industry’s Media Rating Council, and there is some concern that the networks may borrow a page from digital rivals like Facebook and Google and push for ad deals based on data the TV companies provide. The situation could be likened to a student grading her own homework.  And as other companies like WarnerMedia and ViacomCBS start to embrace their own measurement systems, advertisers may suddenly have a lot of self-graded assignments thrown upon their desks.

NBCU’s choice of iSpot comes after a review of many measurement vendors, and Abcarian says Madison Avenue has already embraced the company’s work. The company, she says works with more than 300 advertisers and has 50% of TV’s top sponsors already using its data independently. “The familiarity with the buy side is actually extremely high,” she says.

Team USA, the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams aren’t the only ones with grueling contests ahead of them.