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Cable Rips Nielsen’s Ad Ratings

In part of a growing brouhaha, several top cable-research officials criticized Nielsen Media Research’s plans to start tallying national viewership for commercials this fall.

Both Jack Wakshlag, Turner Broadcasting System’s chief research officer, and Tim Brooks, Lifetime Television’s executive vice president of research, voiced their concerns about various aspects of Nielsen’s plan to provide average national commercial-minute ratings, kicking off in November.

Ad agency Magna Global USA also publicly blasted Nielsen’s announced commercial-rating initiative, which is being done at the request of the broadcast networks.

Before it proceeds with these ratings, one of the issues Nielsen needs to address, according to Wakshlag and Brooks, is agreeing upon a definition of what constitutes a commercial minute.

“Right now, a commercial minute is a minute that has at least one second of a commercial in it,” Wakshlag said. “I’m not sure if that’s fair or that’s the best way to go about doing it.”

Any system Nielsen comes up with ultimately would need accreditation by the Media Rating Council, and it must be agreed upon by all of the ratings service’s clients, Brooks said.

“We’re not opposed in principle to some kind of commercial measurement, but it has to be done in a way that’s accurate, that doesn’t misrepresent data,” Brooks added. “And the definitions of what a commercial minute are have to be vetted. We have to all have confidence that the data we’re using are in fact reliable, projectable data. And none of that has been addressed.”

Nielsen met with the Committee on National Cable Audience Measurement to ask the cable industry to weigh in with its input on commercial ratings, according to Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus. But CONCAM hasn’t responded yet, Loftus said, agreeing that the issues that cable is raising need to be addressed.

According to Brooks, CONCAM was taken by surprise when Nielsen issued a June 21 memo to clients outlining its plans to begin producing national commercial-minute ratings on the basis of so-called Live Plus 7 data. This means that the commercial ratings will include the viewership of those who watched the spots, via digital-video recorders, up to one week after they first aired.

Not everyone is waiting for Nielsen’s new commercial ratings. In an upfront deal, The Weather Channel will use custom minute-by-minute Nielsen data to guarantee a group of advertisers specific viewership for their commercials, according to Liz Janneman, TWC’s senior VP of national cable sales. Those advertisers are clients of Starcom USA, and they will receive so-called make-good spots from TWC if their commercials don’t get their guaranteed viewership.

Nielsen has tried to get all of its clients -- broadcast and cable networks, syndicators and ad agencies -- to come to an agreement on how they wanted commercial ratings reported, but those constituencies couldn’t reach a consensus, Loftus said. But in mid-June, the broadcasters came to Nielsen with their own proposal, and Nielsen agreed to provide what they wanted.

The ratings company added that it is open to other requests from client groups, and it can tailor commercial-ratings data to their demands. But Nielsen said it would like to entertain “uniform requests” from entire TV-industry client groups, like cable.

One of Wakshlag’s concerns about commercial ratings is that there is a discrepancy in the way Nielsen monitors ads on broadcast networks versus cable networks. Nielsen doesn’t count local-avail time on broadcast networks as ad time -- it treats it as programming, Wakshlag said. In contrast, Nielsen counts the local avails that cable networks give to cable operators as national spots.

For one, this means that it appears that cable has more minutes of national ads than broadcast, Wakshlag added.

“There has to be equity in how broadcast and cable networks are treated so that these differences, which are little-known, don’t affect how media is bought and sold, because it can affect millions of dollars in ad sales,” he said. “Nielsen is examining it. My assumption is that they will figure out how to treat us the same by the time the data get released. If not, I would be upset.”