Networks, Distributors Blast Nielsen For COVID Response That Caused Plunge In TV Usage Numbers

Sean Cunningham VAB
Sean Cunningham (Image credit: Video Advertising Bureau)

The trade group representing networks and distributors blasted Nielsen claiming that the measurement company’s viewership numbers are much lower than they should be because Nielsen has not taken proper care of the panel it uses to measure TV usage during the COVID pandemic.

Because of those “TV measurement defects” there has been “systematic under-counting that has been perpetuated in this COVID Nielsen sample since last March,” said Sean Cunningham, CEO of VAB. UPDATE: Nielsen, in a blog post, defended the accuracy of its COVID era panel measurements.

Read Also: Nielsen Says COVID-19 Has Disrupted Local Rating Panels

The VAB wants Nielsen to at least provide the industry with estimates for how much its numbers are off as the annual upfront advertising sales market approaches. The VAB's data shows the measurement issues had a big effect on the reporting of total television use. Cunningham said he had no idea how much impact it had on the numbers for viewing of ad-supported TV specifically, or what that meant in terms of lost advertising dollars.

In a statement Nielsen said. “We have confidence in the fidelity of our ratings estimates and are focused on the continued quality of our panel.” (Nielsen’s complete statement is below.)  

Read Also: Nielsen Sets Major Changes in Program, Ad Measurement

Cunningham said that since the pandemic began in March 2020, the size of Nielsen’s national panel has shrunk 20% from 36,975 homes to 29,456. Nielsen largely stopped visiting its panelists homes to make sure they were still properly participating because of the pandemic.

Read Also: Fort Myers Stations Sign With Comscore, Claiming Undercount by Nielsen

That decline in panel homes correlates with a drop in reported total TV set usage from a 15.1% share of people in March 2020 to 11.2% in March 2021, a 25.8% drop. Even streamers using TV was down slightly, to 6.0% from 6.2%, among 18 to 34 year olds. “How could that possibly be true,” Cunningham said, noting that the pandemic people were home and seemed to be spending a lot of time watching TV.

Weekly reach of total TV use by people age 2 and up dropped from 92% in 2019 to 89% in 2020 and 87% so far in 2021.

Cunningham noted that the industry expects to see year-to-year declines in ratings as people switch to streaming. “The multiscreen TV business has been creating and championing these new video opportunities for many successive quarters. We’re the ones who are putting out the streaming innovations right now and are counting streaming subscribers,” he said. “The challenge right now is there’s no visibility into what are the actual declines and what are the exaggerated declines.”

Because Nielsen didn't properly maintain its panel, it now has 20% fewer minority households and much fewer households with four or more people in them and homes with three or more TV sets, VAB said. Those homes tend to be heavy TV users.

At the same time, the number of homes in the sample registering no TV viewing at all rose 120%. Normally homes not reporting any viewing would be pulled from the sample because the family is no longer there, and replaced.

Cunningham said the networks began noticing unusual ratings activity over the summer and the increase in homes not using TV in January. They pointed those out to Nielsen and tried to work with the ratings company rather than going to the press with their concerns, he said.

Nielsen responded in March by saying that customers should “use judgment” when working with the COVID-era data.

“Using judgment is not a way to help set price and its not the kind of transparency we need,” Cunningham said.

Nielsen on Friday released a white paper explaining its view of ratings during COVID on Friday. Cunningham, before the paper was released, said his members have heard that the paper will be about “standard error” but not offer actionable solutions, including getting a range of how inaccurate the current data is.

“A white paper on standard error falls way short of what we think the marketplace is owed,” he said.

Nielsen said the report will show “that the audience estimates are in line with trends observed via other data sources, and we see no evidence to suggest that changes made during COVID to the panel have materially changed the audience estimates as reported.”

Cunningham said VAB members were particularly disappointed in Nielsen because when the pandemic hit the networks, advertisers and other suppliers and vendors all collaborated and cooperated to come up with unprecedented ways to do business given an unprecedented set of circumstances.

As soon as they could, the networks began producing shows under more costly COVID protocols. And cable companies found ways to get into customers’ homes to maintain service., he said.

“Nielsen was an outlier,” not going into its panelists' homes in order to maintain the quality of its measurement service, Cunningham said.

“The COVID casualty of Nielsen accuracy could have been avoided,” he said.

Here is Nielsen’s statement:

"Over the course of the last year, COVID has disrupted lives, families, organizations and businesses. Nielsen is no different. We leaned in, kept the panel, our people and the ratings estimates safe and, like many of our clients, continued to operate. 

In early March we began our return to pre-COVID maintenance protocols and, in concert with local government guidance, resumed in-home field visits when it was safe to do so with the goal of returning to normal as quickly as possible. While we have always been in the field, our return to in-home visits helps maintain our representative measurement panel and allows us to execute our Nielsen One vision for true, comparable cross-platform metrics.

We have confidence in the fidelity of our ratings estimates and are focused on the continued quality of our panel. 

Tomorrow we are releasing research that takes a close look at both the integrity of our panel data and how audience viewership has shifted during COVID.  Our research has shown that the audience estimates are in line with trends observed via other data sources, and we see no evidence to suggest that changes made during COVID to the panel have materially changed the audience estimates as reported. The research also takes a look at the value and impact that new content has in the marketplace, overall changes in premiere content scheduling and how streaming platforms play a significant role in the future of the entire media landscape. We are working alongside clients to help the industry understand the true impact COVID has had on these accelerated shifts in audience behaviors.

We have been fully transparent with clients and the MRC and will continue to guide the industry through the multiple factors that have influenced audience viewership during these unprecedented times.”

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.