Nielsen Underreported Local Viewing During the Pandemic, MRC Says

Los Angeles stations covering a COVID-19 press conference
(Image credit: KTLA)

The Media Rating Council, continuing to look into Nielsen’s performance during the pandemic, on Tuesday said that Nielsen underreported television viewing in the 56 local markets where some sort of meter is employed to measure viewing.

The MRC last month came to a similar conclusion about Nielsen’s national TV measurement services. The MRC audits and accredits media measurement services.

The MRC report was independent of complaints by TV networks and distributors that the way Nielsen maintained its sample during the pandemic led to undercounting of viewers. The reports from the MRC back up those claims.

Also Read: Summit Preview: Media Rating Council Was Analyzing Nielsen Pandemic Data Before Complaints

The VAB, which represents TV networks, noted that because ad rates are based on Nielsen ratings, underreporting can cost those networks millions of dollars.

“While the differences in viewing estimates in Nielsen’s 56 local metered markets that were studied in these analyses appear to be more highly variable than those that were observed in the national ratings analyses . . .  the results show an overall understatement of reported viewing estimates, which is of a similar dimension to the understatements that were seen in the earlier set of national analyses conducted by Nielsen,” the MRC said in a statement.

During the pandemic, COVID-19 protocols prevented Nielsen employees from going into the homes of people who are part of the Nielsen sample. While most of the country increased their TV usage because they were stuck at home, some of these Nielsen panel homes began reporting no TV watching at all and Nielsen was unable to ascertain whether the family had moved or if equipment in the household was damaged and no longer registering TV watching. 

In markets where Nielsen used a combination of set meters and return path data from pay-TV providers, Nielsen found underreporting by as much as 5%, with an average difference of 2.5%. Among adults 25 to 54, people using television was underreported by as much as 9% with an average difference of 3.9% 

In markets where set meters and portable people meters are used, HUTs were underreported by as much as 3.7%, with an average difference of 1.3%. People 25-54 using television was as much as 4% lower with an average difference of 2.2%

In local people meter markets, HUTs were as much as 3.5% lower, with an average difference of 0.4%, with 25-54 PUTS off as much as 6.9% with an average difference of 1%.

“In collaboration with the MRC, Nielsen has been conducting a thorough analysis of the estimated impact of changes to its panel maintenance protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic in Local markets," Nielsen said in a statement. "Throughout the pandemic, Nielsen has demonstrated innovation and resilience, and has conferred with the MRC to implement procedural changes that prioritized the safety of our panelists and people, as well as the integrity of currency metrics used by the industry. "

The MRC cautioned that these results were preliminary and that Nielsen has committed to perform another, final set of analyses for its local market services.

“MRC plans to continue to work with Nielsen and its members to further analyze the impact that panel disruptions may have had on the viewing estimates Nielsen reported over the affected period,” the report said.

The MRC also said it will continue its ongoing audit and accreditation process for Nielsen’s Metered Market local TV ratings services. The accreditation of that service has been “on hiatus” since the beginning of the year.

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.