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Cable Networks Boycott Ad-Ratings Plan

The cable industry's biggest programmers joined ranks last week to boycott Nielsen Media Research's plan to track viewership of TV commercials.

Turner Broadcasting System, MTV Networks, ESPN, NBC Universal Cable, Comcast Programming Group, Lifetime Entertainment Services, Discovery Networks U.S. and Scripps Networks all disclosed their intentions to “opt out” of Nielsen's effort to provide ratings of commercials, at least initially.

The ratings company plans to start delivering average viewership numbers for national commercials to its clients on Dec. 11. Cable programmers claim that Nielsen's commercial-ratings system is seriously flawed and will produce inaccurate data.

In particular, the networks said Nielsen's monitoring system can't distinguish between national ads and local ads on cable networks; cannot accurately identify all commercials that are shown; and has difficulty matching up the same commercial when it is delivered to viewers in different time zones on different regional feeds (see “Finding Flaws: Cable's Laundry List”).

“The amount of money that can be either lost or gained is just mind-boggling. We need some time to track this,” said Tim Brooks, Lifetime Television's executive vice president of research.

Nielsen said it is working on the problems, but plans to produce the data anyway on what it calls an “evaluation” basis. That means the data should not be used to calculate ad rates.

But that does not placate cable programmers. “The last thing I want to do is have numbers come out — that we have no idea whether or not they're accurate or not — and yet people would start to use them, even though it's experimental,” said Alan Wurtzel, president of research at NBC Universal, which owns USA Network, Sci Fi Channel and Bravo.

The stakes are great and over-the-air broadcasters — such as NBC — are pushing for ratings to be produced.

BILLION-DOLLAR STAKES

Commercial ratings can ultimately affect the price that advertisers pay to run their spots, which makes researchers want the system to accurately record ad viewership from the get-go.

“After all, this is about negotiating billions of dollars,” said Artie Bulgrin, ESPN's senior vice president of research and sales development. “So we have to make sure we get it right.”

Cable, syndicated programming and live sports — which all have similar problems with the new commercial ratings — represent three-quarters of all commercial-minute gross ratings points for the 18-to-49 demographic, for instance, according to Bulgrin.

Advertisers, seeking more accountability and return on investment for their ad spending, want to know how much viewership declines when a TV commercial pops up during a TV show, especially in an era when audiences can fast-forward past ads with DVRs.

These sponsors don't want to be charged for a larger audience than is actually seeing their ads.

Past Nielsen data indicates some wide variety among cable networks, in terms of audience drop-off, during commercials.

This May in primetime, for example, such services as TNT, TBS and Court TV only lost 8% to 9% of viewers ages 18 to 49 during commercials, according to data from Nielsen's NPower. That's similar to the drop-offs that the Big Four broadcasters saw.

In contrast, networks such as E! Entertainment Television and VH1 saw viewing for their ads in that demographic dip 23% to 21%, respectively.

HOPPING ON BOARD

Last week a Nielsen rival, TNS Media Intelligence, said it has its own service, Media Watch, that can monitor exactly when commercials run. Jon Swallen, TNS's senior vice president of research, said that his company has applied to get Media Rating Council accreditation.

But most cable-network officials said they will hop on board with Nielsen's commercial-ratings plan once their laundry list of flaws is addressed.

And there appears to be time to get the problems solved. While the ad agency Mediaedge:cia was one party asking Nielsen to provide commercial ratings, not everyone on Madison Avenue is chomping at the bit for the information.

“None of our advertisers requested us to initiate a drive for commercial ratings,” said Aaron Cohen, Horizon Media's executive vice president and director of broadcast.

“We've told all of them that if the information becomes available, we'll spend all the necessary time analyzing the data to determine how it would impact any of their marketing programs or television advertising plans,” he said. “We'll come back to them probably in late March, April, with an update for them for the coming year.”

At ad agency Carat USA, Shari Anne Brill, director of programming services, said that the commercial-ratings system is “something to evaluate.”

“But there are miles to go,” she said.

Mike Reynolds contributed to this story.