Birmingham’s Nielsen Woes Continue

Station executives in Birmingham, Ala., hoped they’d never again experience the ratings misery they went through last year, when it was discovered that Nielsen dramatically undercounted viewing on Allbritton’s WBMA+ from May 2008 to March 2009. Alas, the Nielsen weirdness has continued, as it was learned that WBMA+’s ratings were alternately undercounted and overcounted at times between February 2008 and November 2009, while its primetime was vastly shortchanged in January 2010. Other Birmingham stations have been, to a lesser degree, incorrectly measured as well.

The confusion in DMA No. 40, a metered market, was signifi cant enough that several Nielsen executives, including Senior VP for Business Initiatives Tom Hicks, held a meeting March 10 in Hoover, Ala., for Birmingham’s local TV community. That the confab was held at a comedy club was seen by some as all too fi tting. (“Send in the clowns,” quipped one frustrated local TV executive.)

WBMA+’s unique setup, which includes a low-power station in Birmingham and two satellite outlets in neighboring cities (thus the plus sign in the call letters), brought on the measurement missteps, as Nielsen has repeatedly struggled with how to accurately aggregate viewership numbers for WBMA, WCFT and WJSU. Hicks acknowledges the challenges involved, but says the responsibility clearly lies with Nielsen.

This time around, Hicks has “a very high degree of confi dence” that Nielsen has the seemingly endless stream of Birmingham bugs worked out. “The changes we’ve put in place have greatly simplified it,” he says. “We’ve eliminated the potential for confusing the [various] pieces.”

Stations and Nielsen have often shared an uneasy symbiosis. Broadcast executives complain about the cost and accuracy of Nielsen’s ratings, not to mention the lack of a viable competitor to the company. Sunbeam Television took the unusual step of filing a lawsuit against Nielsen last year, claiming that it enjoys a monopoly and that its Local People Meters grossly undercount viewership. Nielsen countered that Sunbeam’s claims are “completely without merit.”

According to BIA/Kelsey, the Allbritton- owned WBMA+, an ABC affiliate, is the No. 2 revenue station in Birmingham. When the initial 2008-09 ratings undercounting was discovered in June 2009, Nielsen issued a statement saying that a “procedural error” caused the digital simulcasts of WBMA by the two satellite stations to not be added to the three stations’ analog tuning. (KFOR Oklahoma City also had issues related to digital viewers not being counted by Nielsen in 2008, with the ratings points erroneously assigned to KFOR’s multicast channel. Ratings books were reissued in that market.)

Then, this past November, it was learned that Nielsen both undercounted and overcounted viewing in various quarter-hours on WBMA+ between February 2008 and November 2009, at times counting the same home twice to create often-dramatic fl uctuations from quarter-hour to quarterhour. Some 16% of WBMA+’s quarterhours were off the mark in November 2008, with a smaller number affected on WTTO and WVUA Birmingham, which have similar “parent+satellite” setups to WBMA+.

Finally, earlier this year, it was learned that WBMA+’s primetime viewing was underreported from January 16-20, with zero shares at times popping up. President/ General Manager Mike Murphy longs for the day when he only has the typical GM issues, such as budgets and turning up new revenue, to dwell on. “Nielsen has been a bunch of heartaches for us,” he says.

Nielsen has reissued ratings for several periods from the last two years. Hicks says the November 2009 sweeps book was correct, and the February book, which is to land this week, should be accurate, too. Murphy says it’s difficult to say exactly how the faulty ratings have affected the station’s revenue performance, but Allbritton Senior VP of Legal/Strategic Affairs Jerry Fritz says lower ratings don’t exactly goose advertising. “When you don’t measure some viewers, you have fewer ratings points to sell to advertisers,” he says. “That can hurt.”

While KFOR and Nielsen reached a settlement for KFOR’s lost revenue, according to President/General Manager Jim Boyer, Hicks says he’s unaware of any financial concessions Nielsen will give WBMA+ to make up for the snafu.

But the March 10 meeting helped rebuild the fractured Nielsen-Birmingham relationship. Birmingham’s station managers acknowledge that Nielsen brought its heavy hitters down and took ownership of the problem. “Nielsen struggled to measure unique WBMA Parent+Satellite relationship,” the presentation stated. “Initial approach was too complex and vulnerable. If Nielsen had handled differently, reprocessing wouldn’t have been necessary.”

Nielsen is also planning to meet next month in Atlanta with national agencies that do business with the Birmingham stations, as well as crucial New York advertising figures, to smooth out the debacle.

WBMA+ staffers have their fingers crossed that the February book will reflect reality. “Confidence was substantially shaken in the market,” Fritz says. “We’re cautiously hopeful they’ll get it all nailed down.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.