Nielsen, TV Networks in Showdown Over Counting Viewers Amid Pandemic (EXCLUSIVE)

Sometimes, the simple act of counting can result in something much more complex.

Nielsen and the TV networks whose audiences it measures typically work hand in hand to tell the world about how many people watch some of the nation’s most-watched comedies and dramas. But this week, at least, they’re close to bearing arms against one another.

Nielsen has acknowledged it may not have been able to measure TV audiences during the coronavirus pandemic as closely as it might under normal circumstances, according to five people familiar with the matter, and executives at TV networks believe that has resulted in audience tabulation that could be as much as 10% below where it ought to be for many shows and dayparts — and even streaming activity — in 2020.

One TV executive says the discrepancies and the reasons behind them are “exasperating.” Working with the VAB, a trade organization that represents the big TV networks to advertisers and agencies, the networks have pressed Nielsen to release a public statement about 2020 ratings measurement, according to the people familiar with discussions. ViacomCBS is said to be particularly engaged in the matter. Nielsen, so far, has refused.

“We’ve got no comment on this,” says Sean Cunningham, CEO of the VAB, in a response to an email seeking information. Disney, ViacomCBS, NBCUniversal, Fox, WarnerMedia and Discovery declined to make executives available for comment.

“We have full confidence in the fidelity of our ratings estimates and are working alongside clients to help the industry understand the true impact COVID has had on audiences,” Nielsen said in a statement.

The issue comes to a boil as the nation’s big media companies prepare for the industry’s annual “upfront” market, when U.S. TV networks try to sell the bulk of their advertising inventory ahead of their next cycle of programming. Nielsen ratings are the bedrock of how TV networks and media agencies set prices, and many advertisers build out placement of their clients’ commercials by “mirroring” audience levels from the prior year.

This year, the TV networks don’t like what they see in their reflection.

At issue, according to some of the people familiar with discussions, are decisions by Nielsen to keep field agents from visiting the homes of participants in Nielsen’s measurement process. These people say Nielsen, citing a desire to keep agents from contracting any contagion, kept employees from ensuring technology was functioning properly. These people also suggest that some Nielsen households may no longer be reliable owing to deaths caused by the pandemic. Meanwhile, these people say, the networks aren’t getting the full credit they deserve for people who stream their favorite programs in non-linear fashion.

But others suggest the networks are simply trying to create a public source of blame for viewership problems they have suffered for the past several years. These people note that the pandemic wrought havoc on TV production schedules, forcing the networks to air more repeats, and to run sports games out of sync with traditional schedules. These people also note some familiar programs were made with noticeably lower production values, such as “at home” late-night shows that relied heavily on remote appearances by celebrities.

Little wonder, these people say, that viewers opted to engage more readily with a host of new streaming-video outlets.

“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,” Nielsen said, adding: “While we have always been in the field, our return to in-home visits will help maintain our representative measurement panel and allow us to continue” efforts toward building new systems to examine viewer activity across multiple screens.”

This isn’t the first skirmish between the networks and Nielsen in recent months. In July of last year, Nielsen reversed a last-minute decision to not implement a new measure of so-called “out of home” viewing — audiences watching TV in offices, bars, hotels and the like — even though the networks had sought it. Nielsen cited the pandemic’s effects on viewership in those venues as a reason to delay launch of the new system. The networks, which had already established ad deals with the new measurement involved, went ballistic, and even demanded a public apology. Media outlets and advertisers have increasingly found themselves at odds as new technology forces changes in the systems both sides have relied upon for decades.

Whether the measurement dust-up has any effect on the new upfront talks remains to be seen. Even the nation’s big media agencies are projecting increases in ad spending for 2021, citing a nation eager to move on from the pandemic – and hikes in activity from some of the businesses most affected by it, like movie studios and travel advertisers. Interpublic Group’s Magna, a large media buying unit, recently projected that overall U.S. ad sales would rise 6.4% to $240 billion in 2021, with national TV advertising set to increase 3.4%.

What may slow things down, however, are new complexities. Many of the big media companies are eager to sell ad inventory on new streaming services like Peacock, Tubi, HBO Max and Paramount Plus. They want to do so with hefty rates of increase attached, and it’s not clear whether Madison Avenue will consent to those conditions, even as audiences continue their move away from traditional TV — whether or not Nielsen offers the most granular picture of it.

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