MTVN, Discovery Join Boycott of New Nielsen Ratings

After weeks of protesting the methodology behind Nielsen Media’s new ratings of TV commercials, major cable networks have decided to boycott the system. MTV Networks, Discovery Networks, ESPN, NBC Universal Cable and Turner Broadcasting System have all told Nielsen that they will “opt-out” of the commercial ratings system, which is scheduled to launch in December.

“I don’t want people running around with data that we have no confidence in,” said Alan Wurtzel, president of media and research development at NBC Universal, in an interview.

“Until they are accurate for everyone and accessible to all, we are opting out,” Colleen Fahey Rush, research executive VP of MTV Networks, said in a statement.

Nielsen says that opting out of the commercial ratings means that the company will not readily provide ratings of commercials to advertising agencies or rival channels. However, any researcher who wants to work hard enough can construct a commercial ratings model from Nielsen’s existing Npower service.

Oddly, the broadcast network siblings of the cable protesters are still on board, because the issue centers on how Nielsen tracks commercial breaks on cable.

Advertisers and networks currently get estimates of the average audience of programs, but not the commercials within the programs. Under the new ratings system, Nielsen will report estimates for both the show and the commercial breaks. Early data show that audience for commercials is 6% to 12% smaller than that of the accompanying programming.

However, cable networks handle commercials differently, and Nielsen’s system cannot always properly distinguish between advertising and programming.

The major problem is the minutes when networks allow local affiliates to insert their own commercials. Broadcast networks generally go dark, making local commercials easy to track. Broadcast networks also submit their logs of commercial breaks to Nielsen. But because every cable system does not always insert a local commercial into each “avail,” cable networks feed direct-response ads into that time.

Hence, when channel flippers surf away during the Bowflex commercial, Nielsen’s Monitor-Plus system often attributes the drop in audience to the program.

A Nielsen spokesman said that the company has ordered equipment to read the “cue tones” in cable commercial breaks, but adds that it will take four or five months to properly integrate into the commercial ratings. He also said that some cable networks have opted into the commercial ratings program, but he would not name any of them.