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Not Ready for Prime Time — Audience Measurement in Disarray

Adonis Hoffman
(Image credit: Future)

Beyond Will Smith's infamous pimp-slap of Chris Rock, the other big news in Hollywood has been the free-for-all assault on Nielsen by networks and advertisers. 

In the otherwise staid and arcane world of audience measurement, the campaign to replace the Nielsen system with different methodologies has garnered unprecedented press and grown to undeniable proportions. So much so that Nielsen, itself, recently agreed to a $16 billion acquisition by a group of private equity investors who are betting big on the company and the media measurement space.

Last summer, Sean Cunningham, the combative chief of the Video Advertising Bureau (VAB), fired a shot heard around the media world, charging Nielsen with under-counting television viewers during the pandemic. Cunningham tapped a deep reservoir of ill-will against Nielsen, long in the making. In so doing, he gained industry support to oust the company from its perch atop the audience measurement sector. Nielsen’s decades-long dominance in media ratings, its expensive client fees and its legacy of tin-eared leaders had reached a tipping point.

At a time when more and more people watch video content through streaming, measuring linear TV viewing has become all-important for legacy television. Numbers matter when it comes to audiences, and it is a simple formula. More numbers, more money. Anything upsetting this precarious balance is anathema, including reports of a growing shift from linear to streaming.

David Kenny, Nielsen’s intrepid CEO, admitted that it should have pivoted more quickly to account for this shift, COVID notwithstanding. He hastened to note that the long-awaited Nielsen One measurement technology would be rolled out ahead of schedule, providing a comprehensive new methodology across all platforms.

About the Author

Guest blog author Adonis Hoffman is chairman of the American Social Impact Foundation. He previously served as senior legal advisor, chief of staff and bureau chief at the FCC , SVP and Legal Counsel at the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As,) and co-chairman of the Nielsen External Advisory Council.

But the VAB has been no fan of the Nielsen model or its leader. As the industry foil for influential networks and media companies, VAB has eschewed recent data revealing a downturn in linear viewing and a decline in ratings and revenue for its members.

Nielsen’s offer to take a voluntary hiatus from Media Rating Council (MRC) accreditation was too little too late. The contentious charges from the VAB compelled the MRC to suspend Nielsen's accreditation for national TV measurement. A status it suffers today.

As the most powerful television group few have ever heard of, the MRC is solely responsible for certifying and accrediting the companies and methodologies that measure television viewing audiences. Its good housekeeping seal of approval decides the fate and fortunes of those doing the measuring. As such, it has great impact upon the economics of the media ecosystem, including networks, broadcasters, advertisers, and agencies. The MRC decision to disaccredit Nielsen in September opened the floodgates to a new competitive regime and unleashed the pent-up scorn for the company.

In October, Kelly Abcarian, EVP of Ad Measurement at NBCU, joined the fray and upped the ante. An erstwhile Nielsen exec and corporate loyalist, with years of advertising bona fides, Abcarian left Nielsen after the company split into two last year. She now leads the charge to bring down her old company under a new banner.

But she does not battle alone.

Abcarian has conscripted Nielsen's competitors and formed an alliance of nattering nabobs of negativism, otherwise known as NBCU’s Measurement Innovation Forum. For all the talk about new ways to measure media and audiences, the participating firms have made little progress, according to the MRC.

Just last month, the MRC reported that only two such companies are actively involved in its accreditation process for the measurement of linear and connected TV: ComScore and Nielsen. Both are coordinating with the MRC and accreditation appears certain but not in time for the all-important “Upfronts”-- one of the most significant exchanges of dollars in the media marketplace.

According to the NBCU Look Book, many of the other measurement firms — however loosely defined — are either unaccredited or not engaged in the process at all. Several of them (605; Oracle; Samba TV; VideoAmp) have yet to submit their plans to the MRC and others have no plans to seek MRC accreditation at all. iSpot TV and TVSquared seem to be the exceptions. While several may have capital, nary a one has the depth of competence, technological capability, or market confidence evidenced by the incumbent. So much for robust competition.

Networks have the best of both worlds in the brawl for ratings dominance. On the one hand, they get the latest thinking on measurement technology from contenders and pretenders alike. One network for example, has promoted a scheme to measure itself – akin to grading your own homework after a take-home test. On the other hand, they get to leverage the industry instability into favorable contract terms with Nielsen (and the newcomers). This is sure to work in their favor, as chaos often breeds economic advantage.

But the question of balancing big data analytics with qualitative audience metrics remains daunting. That challenge looms large for all the contenders to the Nielsen throne. Absent panels, or some other source of qualitative data, measurement flaws will abound. Big data has been shown to be discriminatory in both economic and racial terms.

While Nielsen's head is bloodied, it is unbowed even if uncrowned by the MRC. But to be the champ, you have to beat the champ and, thus far, that has not happened. At last look, it remains the measurement currency of the realm booking both linear and streaming clients in strong numbers. The shakeup in media measurement has led to favorable, although flawed, results.

Other than Nielsen, not one of the new contenders for ratings primacy has seen fit to focus on minority viewers -- a demographic that over-indexes on video consumption across all platforms. For the past 12 years, Nielsen has charted and chronicled the importance of African-American, Hispanic and Asian viewers for brands, advertisers, networks, broadcasters and agencies. Each year, it has heralded these viewers as quintessential media and advertising consumers. None of the other contenders for the throne have paid attention to this important American sector, which accounts for nearly 40% of viewers.

Until the other media measurement firms address these deficiencies with clarity, integrity, and responsibility, they will never be quite ready for prime time.

Editor's note: This story was updated on April 14 to change a reference to Kelly Abcarian's departure from Nielsen. 

© 2022 Adonis E. Hoffman