Nielsen and the networks it serves have long been at odds, like a student might be with a particularly tough college professor who always offers a B- but never an A. But lately, tensions have begun to boil over into the public sphere, raising anew the prospect that advertisers and media outlets may start using a broader range of measurement services as the benchmark for advertising and sponsorship sales.

“If there is no off-the-shelf consensus” for how modern video viewers should be measured, says Krishan Bhatia, president and chief business officer of NBC­Universal’s ad-sales division, “we are going to continue to invest in creating our own.”

The networks believe Nielsen undercounted TV viewing during the height of the coronavirus pandemic last year because of methodology changes. Television executives want the matter to be addressed before the start of the industry’s annual upfront, the period when networks traditionally book advance commitments for the bulk of their ad inventory for the coming season.

“We have brought Nielsen clear evidence of significant defects in both their COVID-period outcomes data and panel processes. Their collective response to the calls for clarity and fair scrutiny has gone from resistance to refusal, much to the detriment of a 2021 TV marketplace that is owed a better COVID TV data truth set,” says Sean Cunningham, CEO of the VAB, an industry organization that represents the TV networks to advertisers.

Nielsen acknowledges changes were made to some of its processes for monitoring TV viewership over the past 12 months. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, Nielsen made adjustments to its data collection procedures where possible without compromising the integrity of our data to reduce the number of in-person interactions,” the company said in its annual report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Still, its executives believe the television industry must face reality: Viewers are leaving linear TV in favor of streaming and mobile devices.

“What we have seen is that the decline in linear is definitely increasing,” Mainak Mazumdar, Nielsen’s chief data and research officer, told Variety in a recent interview. “There is an increase in streaming, but the decline in linear is not offset by total viewing.” The company has repeatedly stated that it stands by its recent work. Nielsen declined to make executive available for additional comment.

At a time when more viewers watch their favorite shows via streaming video, media companies worry Nielsen’s isn’t capturing all the consumption, keeping them from revenue they ought to collect.

NBCU last week hired Kelly Ab­­carian, a former senior Nielsen executive, as its executive vice president of measurement and impact, charging her with helping advertisers figure out the effectiveness of commercials placed across NBCU platforms, which range from NBC to Bravo to MSNBC to E! Abcarian’s hiring shows that NBCU is trying to burrow more deeply into the business of measurement — activity that used to be the sole province of Nielsen as the industry standard.

Nielsen and the TV networks have clashed many times in the past. In 2003, the networks harangued Nielsen over measures that showed young men leaving primetime TV for other distractions, which included (at Nielsen’s suggestion) DVDs and videogames. NBC went so far as to suggest the perceived shortfalls were due to a glitch after Nielsen added more viewers of Latino background to its sample. Many years later, Nielsen seems right: A percentage of traditional TV’s young, male viewers are no longer watching the medium in linear fashion.

Yet the feuding has become more frequent in recent months. In July, Nielsen reversed a last-minute decision to delay implementation of a measure of “out of home” viewing — audiences watching TV in offices, bars, hotels and the like. The networks had already started to craft ad deals tied to it and went ballistic over the delay. Nielsen had cited the pandemic’s effects on viewership in those venues as a reason for its rethinking. In early 2019, CBS and Nielsen came to an impasse in contract talks, with the network pressing the measurement company on the cost of services and how it would measure viewers using new technologies.

In the past, Nielsen might have worked more fully behind the scenes to address a client complaint and there are indications it still is. Discussions between Nielsen and top network executives continue behind the scenes, according to executives familiar with the matter. Under CEO David Kenny, however, Nielsen has been vocal in its defense of its methodology even as it pursues new cross-platform measures it believes will count consumers while they carom across the media landscape.

Kenny isn’t just an operating executive. He has a history working in the media trenches. He  helped build Digital, a large specialist in digital media and advertising, before it was sold to Publicis Groupe of France, and has held senior operating roles at digital-technology firm Akamai Technologies, a previous owner of The Weather Channel and IBM.

He presides over the ratings giant at a precarious moment. As the networks see their au­­diences spend more time watching ad-supported streamers such as Hulu, Peacock, Discovery Plus, Tubi, Pluto TV and Paramount Plus, they are open to testing new measures. Smaller audiences mean media companies can sell other things than the number of total views. They can use technology and consumer data to identify first-time car buyers or expectant mothers — and craft deals based on the number of visits customers make to auto showrooms or on sales of movie tickets. As a result, there is palpable desire on the part of networks to use multiple measurement services and let advertisers decide which are most important.

That raises new issues: How comfortable can advertisers be with crafting deals based on one media company’s data? That could be akin to buying eggs from a farmer without having them inspected by local agriculture authorities. Do advertisers trust new measures — some ad-industry observers call them “Frankenmetrics” — that aren’t held to an industrywide standard?

So Nielsen may be on the griddle, but the company isn’t cooked yet.

Meanwhile, look for the networks to press their case. NBCU’s Ab­­carian suggests sellers of ad time have more options — and plenty of incentive to test new yardsticks.

“Marketers don’t buy ratings,” says Abcarian. “They buy results.”

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