Cable Starts Commercial Ratings Boycott

NBC Universal Withdraws Until Data Is Improved; CAB Advises Members to Opt Out

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NEW YORK ( -- The cable industry looks ready to turn its back on Nielsen Media Research's soon-to-be-released commercial ratings. NBC Universal yesterday said its cable networks will opt not to be part of Nielsen's commercial ratings data files, which are delivered to media agencies until methodological deficiencies are resolved. This morning the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau also threw its weight behind the issue, advising its members to also opt out of commercial ratings for largely the same reasons.
Alan Wurtzel
Alan Wurtzel Credit: NBC

CAB's letter
CAB President Sean Cunningham, in a letter to its members, said, "We do strongly believe that until all of the data/methodology issues relevant to the cable industry are resolved and correct data is being produced, opting into the data file for purposes of 'seeing how it looks & analyzing the data' will not serve both the individual cable network's or the Cable ad industry's best interests."

When stacked against the broadcast networks, cable networks have done poorly when it comes to how many viewers stick around for the ads. While a broadcast network might typically lose 5% of viewers watching the shows, cable might lose between 8%-10% of its audience during the breaks.

Many in cable believe that the way Nielsen is calculating viewership of commercials has too many flaws and they don't want media buyers or clients drawing conclusions about cable's performance.

Demonstration data
"We believe that jumping into early inclusion into this 'demonstration data' would allow only analysis of sub-standard data and potentially help to create bad first impressions of Cable's relative performance on commercial ratings," Mr. Cunningham wrote. "It is in this early phase of the 'demonstration data' in which Nielsen is clearly cable-challenged."

In an interview with Advertising Age, Mr. Cunningham said the cable industry isn't turning its back on the new data. "We really do believe the fix is imminent ... months away, not years away. It's not that we don't want commercial ratings data, we do. We just want the best possible data."

NBC Universal's cable networks have already decided to opt out of commercial ratings. The group, which includes the top-rated cable net USA Network, plus SciFi Network and Bravo, will not be part of Nielsen's commercial ratings data file when they are issued Dec. 11. Nielsen has said it will provide the data on both broadcast, cable and syndication programming for free.

"Honestly, I really don't have a lot of confidence in Nielsen's ability to resolve all the problems in respect to measuring cable before numbers come out," said Alan Wurtzel, president of research at NBC Universal.

Local vs. national
Among the issues irking cable channels are Nielsen's ability to properly and consistently identify local vs. national spots. Commercial ratings are only supposed to measure the ratings of national commercials.

"Back in June [commercial ratings] seemed like a straightforward idea," Mr. Wurtzel said, "but now that we're kicking the tires it's become a much more daunting task. It's OK, we'll get it figured out, and I figure Nielsen is aware [of potential problems] because they gave everyone the option to opt out."

A Nielsen spokesman said it is expecting a mix of cable and broadcast networks to be part of its data files come Dec. 11, and that the measurement company is taking steps to identify national from the local ads by installing what are known as "cue tones" that can pick up audio. He didn't comment on whether NBC Universal's cable networks were the first to opt out.
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