TV Networks Frustrated by Nielsen’s Count of Audiences During Coronavirus

Brian Steinberg
·4-min read

Challenges facing the TV business include technology and creativity. Sometimes, however, everything comes down to math.

The nation’s TV networks claim the primary arbiter of who watches their programs allowed its business to deteriorate during the coronavirus pandemic and has only devised “a four-ounce solution to a ten-pound problem” of trying to count TV viewers during an unprecedented era in history.

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Speaking Thursday, Sean Cunningham, the CEO of the VAB, a trade organization that represents the broadcast and cable networks to Madison Avenue, alleged that measurement giant Nielsen essentially allowed the panel of viewers that is at the crux of how it tracks viewership to degrade, resulting in a significant undercounting of audience that TV executives charge clashes with other sources of viewership data.

“This really should have been avoided,” said Cunningham, noting that the networks have been talking to Nielsen about the challenges of tracking viewership since the summer.

At issue is an acknowledgement by Nielsen that it may not have been able to measure TV audiences during the coronavirus pandemic as closely as it might under normal circumstances. Executives at TV networks have told Variety they believe that has resulted in audience tabulation that could be as much as 10% below where it ought to be for many shows and dayparts — and even streaming activity — in 2020.

The networks believe Nielsen stopped replacing homes in its panels even when people relocated elsewhere during the pandemic, or when people may have passed away. Nielsen also stopped sending field agents into homes to makes sure its technology was functioning properly, Cunningham said, and the networks believe that went on from March 2020 to March 2021. The networks believe the number of houses that showed no TV watching or streaming increased exponentially during the pandemic, Cunningham said.

“There was a compound loss of panelists month by month,” said Cunningham. “This is a loss of critical mass. It’s an incredibly important concern.”

“We have confidence in the fidelity of our ratings estimates and are focused on the continued quality of our panel,” Nielsen said in a statement. “Our research has shown that the audience estimates are in line with trends observed via other data sources, and we see no evidence to suggest that changes made during COVID to the panel have materially changed the audience estimates as reported.”

Nielsen is expected to release a “white paper” Friday outlining how viewership has fluctuated during the coronavirus. Its research is expected to show what most network executives acknowledge is an ongoing decline in linear audiences for TV, exacerbated by a lack of original programming and a scattered presentation of flagship sports matches during the pandemic.

Cunningham acknowledged TV audiences have moved to new viewing venues, but noted that the Nielsen pandemic figures show declines in young streaming viewers as well — a dynamic to which he says it is hard to grant credence. He says the networks want Nielsen to issue concrete guidance to advertisers about the “anomaly” present in 2020 figures.

The issue comes to a boil as the nation’s big media companies prepare for the industry’s annual “upfront” market, when U.S. TV networks try to sell the bulk of their advertising inventory ahead of their next cycle of programming. Nielsen ratings are the bedrock of how TV networks and media agencies set prices, and many advertisers build out placement of their clients’ commercials by “mirroring” audience levels from the prior year.

This isn’t the first skirmish between the networks and Nielsen in recent months. In July of last year, Nielsen reversed a last-minute decision to not implement a new measure of so-called “out of home” viewing — audiences watching TV in offices, bars, hotels and the like — even though the networks had sought it. Nielsen cited the pandemic’s effects on viewership in those venues as a reason to delay launch of the new system. The networks, which had already established ad deals with the new measurement involved, went ballistic, and even demanded a public apology. Media outlets and advertisers have increasingly found themselves at odds as new technology forces changes in the systems both sides have relied upon for decades.

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