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Networks Ask Nielsen to Halt Release of 'Big Data' Numbers Until After Upfronts

Sean Cunningham VAB
Sean Cunningham (Image credit: VAB)

The networks and other TV sales organizations represented by the Video Advertising Bureau are asking Nielsen to immediately halt the release of viewership data based on the ratings company’s new “Big Data” approach until after the upfronts.

In a letter VAB said was sent to Nielsen CEO David Kenny late Tuesday (March 8), VAB CEO Sean Cunningham said the first batch of new data was “rife with illogical audience patterns and contradictions that render it currently unusable.”

The problems are compounded because the upfront marketplace, where advertisers make commitments to buy about $20 billion worth of commercials, is about to get underway, VAB said. The VAB contends that having another set of numbers — especially problematic ones — will add an unacceptable layer of confusion to negotiations.

“Given the compounded Big Data deficiencies (mostly unusable data plus unacceptably low levels of explanations/disclosures/verification), complicated by the current timing (Upfront planning season), Nielsen’s release of a second data set (Big Data atop National Panel) that is intended as eventual currency data has to be halted immediately by Nielsen in order to fix this broken-on-arrival data set,” Cunningham's letter said.

In a statement, Nielsen said: "We are deeply disappointed that these concerns would be raised in the press rather than in direct discussion and collaboration with us. We have been in regular contact with our clients, including hosting client webinars and numerous individual client meetings to review the methodology used to create the audience estimates and the recent release of impact data. We have been, and remain committed to working with our clients to convey a deep understanding of this comprehensive offering."

"Up until this letter was issued, we have not received questions from the VAB. Additionally, a trade group associated with traditional TV channels is an incomplete and biased subset of the video marketplace. We prefer to work openly with the entire industry to get to the best measurement solution," Nielsen added.

"Furthermore, based on feedback across buyers and sellers we made the decision to allow either data set to be used for trading in the fall. We have addressed client concerns around the proximity of impact data to upfronts and our approach will enable buyers and sellers to trade against big data plus panel metrics if they so choose, while giving our clients runway to adapt to this launch," the Nielsen statement said.

With viewership shifting from traditional broadcast and cable to streaming, Nielsen is moving toward supplementing its panel of viewing households with big data from set-top boxes and smart TVs to get a better handle on more fragmented audiences.

Nielsen’s current system was found to undercount viewers during the pandemic and lost its accreditation from the Media Rating Council, the industry’s research watchdog. VAB, representing the networks, has been a vocal critic of Nielsen and many media companies are looking at alternative measurement companies to provide currencies to test leading up to the upfront and Nielsen is rolling out its own new measurement system, Nielsen One, starting with advertising measurement.

Nielsen released the first batch of ratings using “big data” covering viewing from September 2021 on February 23. The timing is bad because networks and agency media buyers are starting their upfront planning and don’t have adequate time to adequately compare the ratings from the old and new systems. Nielsen had previously assured the market it would have a year to examine the new data before the start of the 2022-23 television season.

In addition to asking Nielsen to halt the release of the new big data ratings, VAB wants full disclosure on how the new ratings were created and guidance on how to compare the two sets of viewing information. 

While examining Nielsen’s data, the VAB said it found “illogical demographic audience shifts” within the dayparts. It found that the big data version showed audience gains on persons 2-plus and persons 18 to 49, but significant declines among people 25 to 54.

Similarly, VAB found double-digit swings in male and female viewership in many dayparts, genres and programs.

In sports programming, there were instances where ratings are down, according to big data, while persons using TV stats for the same programs show double-digit increases.

VAB also said that while Nielsen had expected that using big data would be more accurate and show larger viewership for smaller networks, the ratings released by Nielsen gave 30% of the smallest 100 networks lower overall audiences, compared to just 15% of the 30 largest networks showing declines.

In conclusion, the VAB wants Nielsen to stop issuing big data releases until they are proven fixed to address the points raised in the letter. The group also wants Nielsen to clarify how long Nielsen's current C3 and C7 commercial ratings will be available and usable.

And it wants a review of how Nielsen is updating its panels, including doubling the size of broadband-only homes, and for Nielsen to clarify the role of the panels in its big data ratings.

“The VAB had high hopes for big data being a big leap forward in what Nielsen’s measurement and currency can bring to marketers, but after in-depth analysis, it’s clear to us that this first data set is rife with serious problems,” Cunningham said through a spokesperson. “Taking the time to right the wrongs now is in the TV buy/sell marketplace’s best interests and gives Nielsen time to fulfill their promise of coming to market with a more accurate solution. VAB’s Measurement Innovation Task Force is ready to work with Nielsen on the issues we’ve raised, to help put them on a better course to better measurement.” ■

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.