Emperor Nielsen Has No Clothes

Under well-deserved pressure from the Video Advertising Bureau and the Media Rating Council — not to mention Discovery’s David Zaslav — Nielsen is facing a potentially existential moment. It would do well not to revert to its usual defensive crouch and, instead, engage in a straightforward and transparent dialogue with its clients.

Back in April when Sean Cunningham of the Video Advertising Bureau accused Nielsen of underreporting demos during the worst of the pandemic, Nielsen strongly denied the charge, saying their data was correct.

To me, Nielsen’s response sounded like “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” I wrote a column here at the time urging Nielsen to take whatever steps necessary to restore confidence in their product.

Since the controversy started, Nielsen has worked hard to change the subject, spending a lot of time promoting its Nielsen One measuring system. If it is successful, Nielsen One will have much to offer, integrating everything from streaming to digital sites. Most importantly, the new system will boil it all down to impressions, something many multiplatform television sellers have been demanding. Sounds great, providing of course one can trust the data.

In May, trust took a hit when the Media Rating Council, the industry’s accreditation group, agreed that Nielsen did undercount some demos in February, saying changes in panel maintenance accounted for a 2% to 6% undercount of 18-49 viewers, though they felt the impact of the undercount was difficult to determine since all estimates have standard errors. Nielsen was quick to say it had been cooperating fully with the MRC, including supplying it the affected data. Nielsen also said it has since returned to full maintenance of all meters and, of course, it again pitched Nielsen One as the system of the future.

Whatever hope Nielsen had that the MRC announcement would calm their critics was quickly dashed the following month when the VAB’s Cunningham again unloaded on the ratings service, calling for the MRC to suspend Nielsen’s accreditation. He also demanded a full audit of Nielsen’s data. Keep in mind that the VAB represents almost 50 networks, including the traditional over-the-air ones. When the VAB speaks, we are listening to the voice of a great number of major industry players.

Cunningham’s demand for suspension was soon followed by a fiery speech from Discovery’s David Zaslav, who minced no words, calling Nielsen “antiquated” and “wrong.” He also called for a new industry measurement solution, saying of Nielsen, “They just can’t get it together. It’s a shame.”


In response to the critics, last week Nielsen took the unprecedented step of asking the MRC for a hiatus, saying a break would allow the company to concentrate on its panels while also focusing on Nielsen One. That sounded like an admission that Nielsen’s current numbers have a problem, though, as with all things Nielsen, conclusions are open to interpretation.

What to make of all this? In Police Squad, there is a scene where Leslie Nielsen (possibly no relation) stands in front of fires and explosions yelling at a small group of people through a megaphone. “Nothing to see here! Please disperse! Nothing to see!”

My personal experience with Nielsen has been that legitimate complaints were usually met with either “our system is working within the established parameters” or, when things got really hot, “our new methodology will solve your concerns.” I’ve never known Nielsen to admit a mistake, at least to me, though they have on very rare occasions reissued ratings books in some markets.

It’s time for Nielsen to genuinely listen to its customers and have an open conversation designed to solve problems, not defend decisions. Yes, Nielsen One is a great idea, but that only matters if the parent company has credibility, something now in doubt. Without credibility, Zaslav’s call for a new system could come true.

The world of media selling is moving toward full measurement, a place digital has always been. Some day in the not-too-distant future, our industry will look back on audience estimates as a quaint 20th Century idea. If Nielsen is to be the company of the future, and not a paragraph in history books, it needs to rebuild its client credibility now. That will only happen if there is honest, straightforward and transparent discussion with the clients who fund its business. The time for simply saying “we know best” is never coming back.

Hank Price is a media consultant and leadership coach. He is the author of Leading Local Television, a guide to leadership for television general managers, as well as those who aspire to top leadership. Price spent 30 years managing TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago and KARE Minneapolis, as well as three other stations. Earlier, he was a consultant for Frank N. Magid Associates. Price 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. He is the author of two other books.

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RustbeltAlumnus2 says:

August 16, 2021 at 9:34 am

Nielsen reminds me of Sears (or Macy’s), no longer where America shops.

AIMTV says:

August 16, 2021 at 1:24 pm

In the mid-aughts, I took Nielsen to task for over-representing Spanish speaking (and under-representing English Speaking) Hispanics in their sample. They blew me off until we went high profile with “Change The Sample” and later “Help Change TV,” which went viral in the trades and consumer press (when viral wasn’t even a thing yet). Then they wanted to meet, talk, etc. Next year, at NATPE, we had a great grassroots marketing campaign to bring awareness to the issue. Nielsen, to get us to stop, had a meeting with myself and our VP of Advertising at NATPE, assuring us that if we stopped the marketing campaign, they’d promise to address the issue and let us know some concrete steps they’d take to address within 30 days. 30 days went by, then 60. Nothing. I called. When I finally got our rep on the line, they denied having the meeting (the representative was at the meeting). That was when I got my first taste of Nielsen’s systemic intellectual dishonesty and duplicity. Since then, a lot has changed, and I no longer work in Hispanic targeted media, but apparently, Nielsen’s modus operandi remains the same. Deny, lie, cover up and pretend that they are offering anything but, at best, guesstimates that a multi-billion dollar industry has grown to rely on—a house of cards.