In New Setback, Nielsen Says Its ‘Big Data’ Isn’t Ready for Transacting

People watching TV
Nielsen's "big data" is information culled from viewers' smart TVs and set-top boxes. (Image credit:

Nielsen, which has been touting that Nielsen One, its new cross-platform measurement system, is on track, quietly informed clients last week that the “big data” on which the platform relies isn’t ready to be used to make transactions.

Nielsen had planned to include its big data — information on viewing from set-top boxes and smart TVs — in its national TV ratings in September and have clients use it as currency in the scatter advertising market.

“Nielsen has been working with the industry to share the details of our methodology and the associated impact to audience estimates,” Nielsen said in its note to clients last Wednesday.  “One consistent piece of feedback from both clients and the MRC has been the need to explore additional methods to further reduce variability and improve overall stability. Similarly, we anticipate the need for additional enhancements to further address the limitations of big data. We have continued to iterate on potential enhancements to address these needs and are actively researching additional techniques in this area.

“Given the potential trend break that enhancements may cause, and in consideration of feedback that clients largely will not be transacting on this data in September, the upcoming launch of big data will no longer be for transaction purposes. This will allow more time to test, validate and share the impact of any additional changes, as well as consider MRC audit results, prior to the full transition in September 2023,” Nielsen said.

Asked about the delay and whether it would have an impact on Nielsen One, Nielsen responded with a statement.

"As planned, Nielsen will be launching the inclusion of Big Data sources into National TV reporting as of the September 2022 measurement,“ the statement said. “As we work to ensure the best quality and stability of the data during this transition, we have made the decision to delay using this data for transaction purposes. This decision does not impact our plans for full transition to panel, plus big data, in September 2023, or our path to accreditation for our National TV measurement service.”

With more viewers cutting the cord and streaming, Nielsen’s traditional panel methodology is having trouble keeping up with fragmenting consumer behavior. The panels also broke down during the pandemic, resulting in Nielsen undercounting viewers and its national rating service losing its accreditation from the Media Rating Council, the industry’s watchdog. 

A meeting to review an audit of Nielsen's big data methodology, scheduled for August 25, was postponed. 

“Because Nielsen is working on enhancements to its big data initiative, we postponed certain of the audit processes and a previously scheduled review meeting on this initiative in order to extend our audit to cover these enhancements,” MRC senior VP, associate director David Gunzerath said. “The committee hasn’t seen any audit results yet and has not met, and the MRC staff believes these enhancements are important to be included in our consideration.”

The MRC is also working with the MRC to get its national and local TV ratings systems reaccredited. The audit of Nielsen's big-data methodology is designed to verify its compliance with the MRC's standards so that if the national service gains back accreditation, the combined methodology would maintain accreditation.

With complaints about Nielsen rising, TV networks are aggressively working with measurement companies offering alternatives to Nielsen, which itself is trying to complete a $16 billion buyout to a group of private equity investors that believes Nielsen’s sagging stock price was too low.

When Nielsen first released big data numbers on an informational basis to clients earlier this year, TV networks represented by the VAB spotted discrepancies and urged Nielsen not to release further data until the problems could be solved and more information about Nielsen’s methodology could be disclosed.

Sean Cunningham VAB

Sean Cunningham (Image credit: VAB)

“This is a big deal,” VAB CEO Sean Cunningham said of Nielsen delaying the use of its big data for transactions. “It’s an indication of a state of complete unreadiness.”

Since March, when VAB went public with its problems with Nielsen’s big data numbers, Nielsen has continued to issue ratings including big data on a monthly basis for the industry to review and the quality of those ratings has not improved, Cunningham said.

“It never got one iota better,“ he said. “What we saw was a compounding of the same types of illogical errors. At the same time, Nielsen has not been forthcoming about its methodology or what steps it was taking to halt the errors. Their current C3 and C7 national ratings panel is also a black box of dysfunctional mystery.”

Cunningham added that if the big data isn’t ready for prime time, it’s also unlikely that Nielsen One can be rolled out this year, which continues to be Nielsen’s plan.

“We were told everything was going to be on time, the data was going to be just fine, it was going to be considered for trading as currency data and it would be audited and it would be accredited,“ Cunningham said. “They went 0 for 4 on all of that." The new delay, which appears to acknowledge problems with big data, could be seen as good news for the advertising and marketing community, which still uses Nielsen as its main viewership measurement standard.

“Anyone who's in the business of building a brand or building positive sales momentum as a marketer is not going to be served by exponentially defective currency,“ he added. “So, yeah, it's the fact that they've had to acknowledge this need to go fix this is definitely good news for a marketer, in that they're not going to be subject to substandard measurement and currency.” 

That news also comes as the FCC could be reconsidering its exclusive reliance on Nielsen data to define TV station markets for determining must-carry/retransmission consent carriage elections and other purposes.

The FCC voted unanimously last month to tentatively adopt Nielsen's Local TV Report as the successor to the company's phased out TV Station Index. But one commissioner, Republican Nathan Simington, used that vote to suggest the FCC's reliance on Nielsen data may be an overreliance on a single source that needed examining and perhaps rethinking. He cited the MRC accreditation issues as one of the reasons why. Contributing: John Eggerton.

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.