Media Measurement Needs A Major Makeover

The sooner we get to a fully measured consumer experience the better for everyone — stations, advertisers and consumers. Nielsen is the leading candidate to do that, but, make no mistake, someone will make it happen.

Hank Price

In an unusual move, Nielsen has filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court saying a citizenship question in next year’s census would result in an undercount of respondents, lowering television universe estimates for the following decade.  This raises a logical question: “How accurate is Nielsen today?” The answer depends on who you ask.

For as long as television viewing has been measured, first-place stations have assured advertisers Nielsen is second only to The Gospel, while competitors point out every discrepancy in data gathering, tabulation and methodology. It’s not hard to find reasons for criticism.

Prior to Arbitron’s exit from television in the 1990s, the situation was even more confused because data from the two companies rarely matched. The joke in major markets was “I need to look at the overnights to see whose ratings I’m selling today.”

Nielsen’s penchant for reacting to competitors has also done it no favors. Its entry into national people meters came right after CBS signed a contract with a British company in that business. More recently, a form of imputed ratings came after Comscore began to make inroads.

The Achilles heel of panel measurement is, of course, out-of-home viewing. The system is simply not equipped to measure a fast-changing wider world.


To be fair, Nielsen is a fine company that works hard to get the numbers right. Its introduction of Nano meters is a step toward full integration of consumer activity, from credit card usage to grocery purchases.

Nielsen is also unfairly compared to the digital world where knowledge of consumer usage is foundational. The flip side of that world is the barrage of nonsensical ads based on visits to almost any website.

Whatever the criticisms, Nielsen is probably the company to bet on for the future. The implementation of ATSC 3.0, fully integrated with 5G, will be a big step toward a better understanding of consumer behavior. Big data will also play a part, especially as television stations continue their transition to a brand-based world where linear is just one of many services.

We already know some things consumers want in the future. More control and less complexity are high on the list. That means future experiences must be highly tailored, yet easy to navigate. The same will apply to advertising, already seen as content.

The best news is that consumers are clearly willing to invest both time and cash to make these things happen. Privacy is already a thing of the past, so social barriers are low.

The sooner we get to a fully measured consumer experience the better for everyone, including the consumer. Nielsen is the leading candidate to do that, but, make no mistake, someone will make it happen. The result will be a world in which the answer to viewer behavior questions will not depend on who you ask.

This is one in a series of occasional columns from Hank Price, a media consultant, author and speaker. He spent 30 years managing TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago and KARE Minneapolis. He also served as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center and is currently director of leadership development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss. His latest book is Leading Local Television.

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