TV Execs Rip Nielsen and Digital Newbies, But Concede an Image Problem

A quartet of high-level execs from traditional TV networks wrestled with the medium’s existential dilemmas during a lively panel Wednesday morning at the Paley Center titled “The New Age of Television: A Fresh Approach to Measuring Success.”

Moderator Michael Wolff, the columnist and cofounder of aggregation site Newser, pushed the panelists on everything from Nielsen’s viability to defining a hit to the need to redefine their business. On the measurement front, there was unanimous agreement that a custom mosaic of research and data is necessary for networks to provide advertisers with a sense of TV’s value. Overnight or even C3 or C7 ratings aren’t enough.

“Nielsen will become increasingly marginalized,” predicted Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development at NBCUniversal. “They are incapable of doing certain things and it’s only getting worse.” Later, he circled back to Nielsen’s vulnerability and tied that to the overall image issues for TV. “Whether we like it or not, Nielsen winds up being a reflection of what the industry is,” he said. “And what troubles me is that people, because they’re looking at these flawed numbers, are getting the idea that the pie, the use of the video medium, is shrinking. Well, it’s not. If anything, it’s expanding. It’s just not being measured. If the pie is shrinking, we all have a problem. If it’s expanding and the slices inside are a lot smaller, that’s OK. Because that’s the job of the program guys and the different people in the company to get a bigger slice of that pie.”

David Poltrack, chief research officer at CBS, refrained from beating up Nielsen further, but said there was blame to be assigned to others for the shortcomings of ratings. “Advertisers are a lot at fault. They won’t accept the new reality,” he said. “Essentially, the advertiser is limiting what Nielsen can do. At the same time we’re seeing CMOs and agencies saying that television advertising doesn’t work anymore and that is absolutely not true.”

Nielsen, he added, has improved its value by adding retail data, as with its Catalina tool. “They have pivoted,” he said. “And we have to shift to telling advertisers, ‘This is how much you got from your ads.’”

Kern Schireson, executive VP of data strategy and consumer intelligence for Viacom Media Networks, agreed with Poltrack. But he noted that digital competitors have effectively staked out a position as being the “final mile” en route to consumer purchase decisions and therefore more valuable than TV. “We need to recognize the value of creating awareness,” he said. “You know those watercooler conversations? Poland Springs doesn’t get credit for those. We created that.”

Robert DiBitetto, A+E Networks’ president of brand strategy, business development and A+E Studios, said the media’s obsession with digital disruptors like BuzzFeed (whose claim of 150 million uniques drew repeated jeers from Woolf) doesn’t help TV’s cause. “Part of it is being the bright, shiny new toy. Part of it is speaking for the millennial generation,” he said. “This movement of ad dollars from traditional TV to digital … continues to feed the perception that they’re providing a more engaging platform.”

To see a video replay of the entire panel session, click here.