Nielsen, Under Fire, Says COVID Viewing Numbers Are Accurate

A family watching TV
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Nielsen, under fire from its TV network clients, defended its methodology and said its numbers, which show big declines in viewing since the beginning of the pandemic, are accurate.

The ratings company denied claims by the Video Advertising Bureau that viewing was being under-reported because Nielsen allowed its panel size to shrivel during the pandemic and said that changes in viewers' behavior and the lack of original episodes of shows and the cancellation of games by sports leagues caused a drop in viewing.

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

“Nielsen looked internally at its own process for estimating the ratings via our observational panel, a source of audience estimates that fuels the media industry,” Nielsen said in a blog post Friday. “While this drove a sample size smaller than it was pre-COVID, it remains robust and representative”.

Nielsen said that total TV viewing has declined in recent years. In the first quarter of 2019, on average, 20.8% of people 2 years old and older were using television across the total day. That declined to 19.1% in the first quarter of 2021.

That number is bad news for the networks, which are getting ready to sell advertising for the 2021-22 season in the upfront market.

Nielsen did say that as a result of the 20% decrease in its sample, the standard error for its estimates is up slightly.  

"What we see is despite the decline in the sample. There is no material statistical difference, right the error has increased but the confidence interval is still high as we have reported," Mainak Mazumdar, Nielsen’s chief research officer, said in an interview with Broadcasting+Cable.

Also read: Nielsen Says Ad-Supported Streaming Rose While Ad Spending Fell 

The error for February 2020 for primetime households using television was plus or minute 0.229. For February 2021, it was 0.26. 

That means that for February 2020, Nielsen was confident that when reporting a 48.67 ratings estimate, that the ratings could have been as low as 48.44 or as high as 48.90. 

For the same 48.67 rating in February 2021, based on the reduced sample size and updated weights, the estimate could have been as low as 48.41 or as high as 48.93, Nielsen said.

“We feel the standard error needs to be accounted for when folks are forecasting their inventory for rest of the year into upfront, Mazumdar said

In its blog post, Nielsen said that advertising buyers and sellers should “consider” the many factors affecting TV at this as they look at the numbers.

The VAB was looking for more than that, saying that a research paper about standard error was not what the industry needed at this point.

Mazumdar said that it has been going back over the behaviors being reported out of the sample homes. Nielsen has found that its numbers reflect what the viewing--or non viewing--that was happening in those homes.

“We're going back and we don't we don't see anything there [that wold cause us] to make adjustments,” Mazumdar said. 

“The behavior change is a big deal because as we go back to these homes we see these are legitimate changes that these households made in their lives that impacts their media behavior,” he said. 

Also read: Nielsen Readies Big Data Metrics For TV Advertising 

In its blog post, Nielsen noted that the pandemic has both bottlenecked and accelerated aspects of the media industry, acting as a polarizing factor for consumer segments

Those changes were spurred by production disruptions caused by COVID. Nielsen said there were 13% fewer new episodes on traditional TV in October 2020 compared to the same month in 2019. That led to a 75% increase in programming repeats. 

Premieres of shows were 29 days later at the start of the 2020-21 TV season compared to the previous year.

While traditional TV undoubtedly declined, total minutes streamed directly to the TV glass, across streaming-capable homes, increased from 117.7 billion to 132 billion, Nielsen said.

“Ahead of this year’s TV upfronts/newfronts, media buyers and sellers need to take heed of these trends and understand the unique impact COVID has had not just on programming and content, but on all aspects of the industry,” Nielsen said in its post.

Nielsen’s Mazumdar also took issue with the VAB’s contention that it had abandoned its panel during the pandemic.

Nielsen, like other companies, was disrupted by COVID. “We adapted very quickly to these challenges by making modifications to our procedures as well as developing new ways to safely recruit, install and maintain our industry-leading panels,” he said. 

Those changes were spelled out to clients last year.

Those changes included remote recruitment of sample homes, introduction of a new nano-meter that members of Nielsen panel homes can install themselves, and the use of proximity visits that allowed the company to perform maintenance on its panelists and equipment from a safe distance.

Now that pandemic appear to be winding down, Nielsen’s field force is fully back at work, Mazumdar said. 

“We want to make sure we go back to the sample size w had in a pre-COVID level.” he said.

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.