The Price Point | Nielsen Must Restore Clients’ Confidence

The Video Advertising Bureau accuses Nielsen of a “systematic undercounting” of TV program viewership since last March. Nielsen needs to respond to the accusation with more than a white paper.

There is an old joke that says ratings and accuracy should not be used in the same sentence. It’s usually heard loudest from those who don’t like their latest numbers. As a result, conflict between Nielsen and the company’s clients is as old as the panel measurement system itself.

Having been on both sides of the argument (always depending on whether the station I was running was winning or losing), I can tell you it is rare for disagreements to go public. Both sides need each other because ratings, and the impressions derived from ratings, are still the currency of the realm. This is why the Video Advertising Bureau’s public shot across Nielsen’s bow last week is so significant.

If you’ve been keeping up, you know the VAB is accusing Nielsen of allowing meters to go into default during the current pandemic, resulting in “systematic undercounting” of television program viewership since last March. VAB’s Sean Cunningham cites a 20% drop in panel participants which he says correlates with a drop in reported total TV set usage. There is much more, but that is the crux of the issue.

In an unusually quick response, Nielsen issued a white paper this past Friday saying it is well aware of the issue and have been taking steps all along to make sure the numbers are accurate. It, of course, has its own statistics and arguments.

So, who is right? I have no inside knowledge, but I do have a long history with Nielsen, so here are some thoughts.

First and foremost, which side has the most logical argument? Nielsen concedes the drop in panelists is real. It is hard to believe that the loss of one out of every five households would have no effect. I’ve seen cases in local markets where a much smaller percentage of meter faults resulted in significant change.


Second, how accurate is the current demographic mix? The only way to make up for lost panelists is to impute numbers by oversampling other members of the panel. How well does that really work?

Finally, what is Nielsen’s history? Every time Nielsen has changed methodology – diaries, meters with diaries, people meters, nano meters — ratings have changed dramatically for the worse. Naturally, Nielsen always claims its latest system is its most accurate. Perhaps it is right, but controversy has not been unusual.

All of this matters because Nielsen is still the gold standard. Comscore has made inroads, but only Nielsen measures actual over-the-air viewing, something essential to networks, program suppliers and, of course, local stations.

Nielsen needs to do more than issue a white paper. It needs to take whatever steps necessary to ensure clients have full confidence in its product.

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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