Nielsen’s yardstick is coming up short once again.
A new study by the nation’s big TV networks suggests Nielsen’s efforts to count viewers watching their favorite programs in so-called “out of home” venues like hotels, offices and bars, have been even less effective than previously thought, resulting in millions of dollars in lost advertising. Nielsen disclosed in December that a “software error” resulted in an undercounting of those out of home crowds starting in September of 2020.
The result? Between Between April and the end of the 2021, the VAB says, Nielsen did not count “one and a half billion impressions” in 20 top events ranging from NBCUniversal’s Summer Olympics coverage to CBS’ “60 Minutes,” ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and Fox’s “The Simpsons.” The result: “a $57 million loss in ad inventory,” the VAB said. The group believes the true total of advertising dollars lost during the period could be more than $350 million.
The VAB examined restated Nielsen counts of a portion of its out of home data. More is expected in weeks to come.
“The marketplace should know that this undercounting was pervasive and in some of the highest profile programs and among the most coveted audience targets,” said Sean Cunningham, CEO of the VAB, in an interview. When it comes to the networks’ relationship with Nielsen, whose measurement of TV audience has been the linchpin of advertising deals for decades, Cunningham said, “we are in an era of no confidence at this point.”
“We reviewed the information shared by the VAB today, and while we acknowledge the understatement in a portion of our National out-of-home audiences, we stand by our prior statements that the magnitude of the issue was very small for the majority of telecasts,” Nielsen said in a statement.
The measurement titan has been under intense scrutiny for months. The Media Rating Council, an industry body that verifies audience measurement processes, removed its accreditation of Nielsen’s national and local ratings services in September after determining the company underestimated traditional TV audiences during the pandemic. Since that time, a number of big media companies, including NBCUniversal, WarnerMedia, ViacomCBS and Univision, have unveiled new efforts to build audience-measurement alternatives. ViacomCBS has started working with the large media-buying agencies owned by Dentsu, and expects to start testing transactions using other services early next year, while NBCU is working with Publicis Media and iSpot.TV to create a new audience measurement system.
Both Nielsen and traditional media companies are scrambling to keep tabs on viewership at a time when audiences have a dizzying array of new ways to watch the medium once known as TV. More people who once were happy to sit down on the couch and watch whatever CBS, ESPN or TNT put on the air, are now subscribing to on-demand video services like Hulu or HBO Max — and advertisers are following them. The trick for the networks is to find ways to count viewers as they surf between screens.
The out-of-home problem is a separate one and only adds to the pressure on the company. Nielsen’s out-of-home counts were viewed as something of a panacea for the TV industry when the measurement company agreed to start using them in the fall of 2020. For years, the TV networks have insisted they woo valuable audiences who watch news programming in corporate offices, sports events in bars and primetime programming in hotels and friends’ apartments, but never got credit for doing so. Nielsen executives said in 2019 that the new technology could result in an 11% uptick in audience for sports events and a 7% increase in audiences for news programming. Such viewership has become more important to traditional media companies as TV audiences migrate to streaming video hubs and social media video clips.
But the out-of-home tabulation has also served as a bone of contention. Nielsen tried to delay implementing it in 2020, citing the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on consumers’ ability to watch TV in restaurants or doctors’ offices. Nielsen ended up following its original plan after generating intense pushback from the TV sector.
Advertisers, says Cunningham, will have to hold discussions with the networks to see if their advertising agreements need to be remedied. “Marketers have been shortchanged,” he says.