If Someone Else Builds A Better Mousetrap, You Shouldn’t Be A Rat

In worlds where the fates of thousands and the destination of millions of dollars rides on the accuracy of results from a smattering of votes, it’s almost understandable that there are countless examples of people complaining about outcomes.  Lord knows we’ve seen it in politics–lately, especially.  We’ve also seen it in media since–well, pretty much since Nielsen started measuring it.  When the results don’t come out in our favor, people bitch.

I was personally a part of numerous such campaigns of frustration, ranging in relative reality-grounding from a group of studios who couldn’t grasp how quality syndicated sitcoms like MARBLEHEAD MANOR were delivering significantly lower ratings in national measurement vs. local, to attacking sample composition of Hispanics in response to a politically enginereed challenge to an FCC license, to a more private challenge of being shriekedly asked by one of my bosses to “napalm Oldsmar”, which just happens to be the Florida city where Nielsen is headquartered, when a personally revered show was being handily beaten in ratings by a competitor this person insisted had to be benefitting from some sort of backchanneled payment.

So I’m far less surprised than are many writers and observers at all of the consternation and accusations that have been fired back and forth this week between Nielsen and the Video Advertising Bureau surrounding the recent announcement that THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER’s Rick Porter recapped for his readers yesterday:

The ratings service is planning to incorporate some first-party data from Amazon into its national panel ratings for the 2023 season. Last year, Amazon and Nielsen signed a first-of-its-kind deal for Nielsen to provide ratings for TNF games, putting the streaming telecasts on equal footing with NFL games on broadcast and cable. Amazon also put out its own numbers, however, which were frequently a good bit higher than the Nielsen ratings.

Earlier this year, Nielsen invited sports broadcasters join a working group about integrating first-party streaming data into national averages for live sports. Thursday Night Football is set to be the first to include both sets of data in a single number; Nielsen has submitted its plan to the Media Rating Council, a regulatory body that accredits media measurement providers. (The MRC suspended Nielsen’s national TV accreditation in 2021 over issues with its sample during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic but reinstated it in April.)

The plan, however, has come under fire from the Video Advertising Bureau, a trade group whose members include several other NFL broadcasters. The VAB, a frequent Nielsen critic, sent a letter to the ratings provider Tuesday asking Nielsen not to go ahead with the plan to incorporate Amazon’s data with its own.

“We see Nielsen’s articulated NFL plans for Amazon…as Nielsen clearly forcing changes into a highly valued, highly visible, ultra-competitive multi-billion-dollar sports content arena; changes that will greatly benefit one Nielsen client (Amazon) while negatively impacting multiple Nielsen clients (all remainder NFL programmers, distributors & ad sellers),” reads the letter, signed by VAB president and CEO Sean Cunningham.

Cunningham is essentially a lobbyist working on behalf of his members, and is a veteran of several top ad agencies, where the top priority is not whether viewers see content but rather if they see a commercial.  And the clients he champions have more than a vested interest in wanting to be able to sell more of them than their competitors.  So one can’t truly fault Cunningham for trying this strategy on behalf of companies that pay him for that.

But one can’t help but notice that some of the vehement critics are companies who for decades have urged Nielsen to do a better job at measuring them.  And none has been more vocal than FOX.  Go back to 1996, when BROADCASTING’s Steve Coe reported this outburst by then-chairman Chase Carey at an affiliates’ meeting in Las Vegas:

Repeating an oft -heard theme at Fox meetings, Carey blasted Nielsen and took the network’s position a step further by saying that Fox will consider
any avenues available, including legal options, to force the ratings company to change the way it measures viewership:
“We must deal with one of our industry’s real failures: the Nielsen rating service. Put quite simply, the service Nielsen is providing to you as stations and us as a network is unprofessional and unacceptable.” He cited several examples from the November ratings book to illustrate his complaints, including the numbers for an NBC NFL game in Greenville, N.C., that Nielsen said scored a 13 household rating and an 89rating among adults 18 -34. “The ratings book was so fraught with errors that they had to pull it back and publish an entirely new book.”
“Like it or not, Nielsen has a fiduciary responsibility to provide a professional service, and we will go to war if we have to,” he said. “I have instructed our legal
counsel to pursue any legal recourse necessary against Nielsen to get them to perform.” He added that Fox would work with the other networks in looking at
alternatives to Nielsen. To heavy applause, he said: “Nielsen is the only organization I’ve ever dealt with that makes our federal government look like a smooth and responsive operation.” 

Now flash forward to the reaction FOX’s current top research executive  shared this week via social media, as reported by PRO FOOTBALL TALK’s Mike Florio yesterday:

Fox executive Mi(k)e Mulvihill was far more blunt: “Nielsen is about to sacrifice its most valuable attribute — impartiality — to benefit one client, one program and one content supplier,” he tweeted, via (SPORTS BUSINESS JOURNAL’s John) Ourand. “Reckless, wrongheaded and a slap in the face to the largest Nielsen clients and NFL partners.”

So I guess now it’s OK to defend Nielsen and its measurement weaknesses, especially when you’re not grandstanding for a room full of conventioneers?

Nielsen pushed back against these allegations, particularly those which Porter recounted were specifically cited in Cunningham’s letter:

The VAB also shared some statistics casting doubt on Amazon’s data, including that co-viewing of Thursday Night Football (i.e., multiple people watching the same screen) was 28 percent higher than other national sports telecasts and that both its co-viewing and out of home averages posted much larger gains than NFL broadcasts as a whole.

In a response Wednesday, Nielsen noted that “clients other than Amazon did not immediately decide to take action” and that it hopes other NFL broadcasters (CBS, ESPN, Fox and NBC) will do so soon. The letter, signed by Karthik Rao, CEO audience membership at Nielsen, also clarified what it called “data misconceptions” in the VAB’s missive.  Regarding the 28 percent gap in co-viewing, Nielsen said it looked at only NFL broadcasts, not all sports, in making its comparison. Over four weeks in December 2022, the average number of people in a household watching a Thursday Night Football game was only about 3 percent higher than those of all other NFL contests. 

Here’s the dang truth.  Every one of these companies–and others–have been working on developing and empowering Nielsen alternatives for years, devoting millions of dollars and man-hours to it.  Some have attempted to build first-party databases to augment their sales efforts and internal learnings about the size and breadth of its audiences.  Amazon, via its consumer commerce business, has built one which dwarfs the size and detail of Nielsen’s panels.  I’ve always explained that if one were to contrast it with Nielsen, it’s like looking at 4K TV versus analog.  The more pixels, the clearer the picture.  Amazon has 220 million global subscribers.  As of February 2021, Nielsen had 37,016 gross installed households in its National sample.

Sure sounds like Amazon has something worth looking at.  And the fact that Nielsen wanted to incorporate it into their own pristine measurement process, in lockstep with the MRC they are seeking reaccreditation with, should be seen as progress, right?  And, for its part, the NFL itself is watching this all play out, as Porter further quoted:

“I think what you’re seeing now is Nielsen’s effort to try to be the best measurement metric that they can be. And we’re certainly supportive of that, all that innovation, and we’ll continue to lean into that,” Brian Rolapp, chief business and media officer for the league, said in a Wednesday conference call. “I’m not smart enough to know or all the nuances of how all the different stats and how it all works, but we’re all for any innovation for all of our partners to measure these games accurately.

But as Florio notes, there’s obvious motivation for the league’s impartiality:

Via AdAge.com, the combined data will look “a lot more like” Amazon’s numbers as to total households watching. The total viewership numbers will be “more like splitting the difference” between Amazon and Nielsen, with the blended numbers roughly nine percent higher than the Nielsen measurements.

The NFL is supporting the effort, for obvious reasons. While it won’t enhance the massive payment the league receives from Amazon for the package, it’s critical for the league to retain as much of the audience as possible as it pivots from traditional networks to streaming platforms. Those numbers will drive the next wave of negotiations with all networks and streaming companies.

Now you might see the real crux of this issue.  FOX, and the other VAB members, ultimately want to retain rights to what is far and away the most valuable entertainment commodity in all media at as reasonable a price as possible.  Having dipped their toes in the water by taking over a Thursday night package which FOX underperformed with (one, incidentally, they frequently dual-illuminated games with the league’s NFL Network), Amazon certainly has the potential to be an even more aggressive competitor going forward if they can demonstrate its ability to be more completely measured.  Particularly if they just happen to be privy to a massive sample that can do just that.

And it’s not like VAB partners haven’t played with numbers on their own to aggregate audiences to their advantage.  Nickelodeon will be airing a kid-friendly broadcast of the Super Bowl this coming February concurrent with its sister network CBS.  NBC aggregates Peacock’s audience (such that it is) into its chart-topping Sunday Night Football numbers.  And as recently as this past May–nearly three months after Super Bowl 57 ended–YARDBARKER’s Jason Clinkscales reported on some revised numbers which Mulvihill’s tenacity produced:

Tuesday morning, Fox Sports announced that Nielsen revised the final viewership total for Super Bowl LVII (57) to 115.1 million viewers, making the Kansas City Chiefs’ victory over the Philadelphia Eagles the single most watched telecast of all-time. 

In February, Fox initially said the game captured 113 million viewers across its broadcast network, Fox Deportes and digital streaming services such as Hulu and YouTube TV. 

Though that total was considered a six-year high for “The Big Game,” it had been the source of intense debate within the media industry. For starters, Fox believed that Nielsen miscounted a significant number of viewers. Additionally, out-of-home viewers were not included in the initial tally. One source went as far as issuing its own estimate, adding to the belief that the game was woefully undercounted. 

It seems that it’s OK to call Nielsen out for measurement malpractice when it fails to deliver the results you believe it should have, but then complain when they actually own up to it and try and do something about it.

Look, Mulvihill is one of the best in the business, but he happens to work for a company that has been lately embroiled with some other cases where someone didn’t like certain results and, at least in the view of a few courts, helped foster some doubts about it.  Perhaps if his superiors hadn’t been hit with an unexpected $787.5 million expense as a result of it, he would have had the budget to take Nielsen up on their offer to provide the same sort of enhanced data which Amazon has invested and partnered with them to provide.

I just hope that the way this little tiff is resolved works out better than the way that other one was.

Until next time…

Leave a Comment