For those of you following the play from home, this week's most recent act revealed that NBC Universal would not let its cable networks, which include Bravo and USA Network, participate in Nielsen Media Research's commercial-ratings data, and that the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau urged its members not to participate either -- which was probably not much of a plot twist. It was pretty clear by late September that the cable guys had a lot of problems with the data.
But TNS Media Intelligence is a new actor in this drama. TNS President-CEO Steve Fredericks requested to participate in today's meeting and will present his vision of commercial ratings to attendees.
TNS Media Intelligence, which counts commercial occurrences and how much TV networks charge for each spot, may offer the industry an alternative to Nielsen. TNS has been marrying set-top-box viewing data with ad-occurrence information to come up with some helpful ad metrics.
"Commercial-occurrence data is what we do. We declare expenditures against them. As soon as you move to commercial ratings, that's half of the equation. All of a sudden we are thrust into the ratings debate," Mr. Fredericks said. "The question for the industry is: What commercial-occurrence data are you going to use? We believe we ought to be the choice."
The ARF meeting, chaired by Tim Brooks, Lifetime Television's exec VP-research, and featuring top Nielsen executives, will discuss topics such as how commercial minutes are defined and the reliability of Nielsen's ad-monitoring product Monitor Plus -- and, most importantly, whether commercial minutes will be good enough to use in the next upfront.
NBC Universal said on Monday its cable unit would not opt in to Nielsen Media Research's soon-to-be-released commercial-ratings data file. Then yesterday the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau said it was advising cable channels to opt out too, and Discovery and Turner have already agreed to do so. The concern is that Nielsen's commercial-ratings data, which will be released Dec. 11, will be too flawed to be usable.
However, broadcast networks and program syndicators still want to help make commercial ratings the new trading currency. They largely view the cable boycott as short-sighted.
"It's amazing. No good deed goes unpunished," said David Poltrack, CBS research president. "The whole purpose of having [the data] on an experimental basis is to figure out and fix the problems. I don't understand their perspective at all."
Jason Maltby, president-national broadcast, MindShare, also is puzzled by NBC Universal's decision. "It seems kind of weird that they were in it for broadcast. How can they say, 'We're not in it for cable'?"
Frustration with cable, media agencies
Mr. Poltrack's frustration isn't limited to the cable industry. He's also annoyed at the media agencies, expressing surprise that some weren't 100% behind commercial ratings. Nielsen's new commercial-minute-ratings data file, which is being offered for free on a test basis, is a "leap forward," he said. "It's more information. It's better information, and I haven't seen anyone come up with a better alternative to the current offering. It's what every advertiser has been asking for."
Nielsen agreed last month to label its data files "experimental" until a range of issues have been ironed out, namely how local ad spots would be identified and whether Nielsen's numbers tallied with cable's own log books.
Mr. Poltrack argued it makes no difference. His research suggests that when local spots are included, cable actually performs better in terms of retaining viewers through the breaks. He said the cable channels' objections barely affect viewing figures.
"You're dealing with indexes that aren't going to vary significantly no matter what you say," he said. "Show me an example of where Nielsen would get it wrong and what the magnitude for error is. ... I don't have the exact information to do it perfectly; I'm saying it doesn't hurt you. Show me the statistics."
Root of the problem
Another executive suggested the main root of the commercial-ratings problem for cable is simply that the Nielsen sample is too small, and that channels that have 0.1 ratings for their programs will have a much tougher time trying to represent the sizes of their commercial audiences.
The syndicators, which also have a handful of issues that haven't been dealt with, are largely prepared to forge ahead and may ask Nielsen to focus on perfecting syndicated data if the cable executives choose to sit on the sidelines. Nielsen has told syndicators it might take until May to get their commercial ratings to an acceptable level.
"We continue to urge Nielsen to get it right," said Mitch Burg, president of the Syndicated Network Television Association. "We want accurate and comparable ratings for all, and we've been working with Nielsen to this end and we continue to urge them to do this with alacrity."