Ad Buyers Give TV a Pass When It Comes to Massaging Nielsen Data

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Sleight of hand: NBC was among the networks called out.
Sleight of hand: NBC was among the networks called out. Credit: Trae Patton/NBC

TV was called out for messing with metrics Thursday. But in an ironic twist, media buyers are largely shrugging where they've taken great umbrage at digital platforms misreporting their own data.

Networks have been called out for tampering with their Nielsen ratings with a little sleight of numbers, perhaps abusing a fairly common practice, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Networks are essentially hiding certain time slots and airings of programs from the ratings, if including those outlier broadcasts would negatively impact the average rating.

"It's one of those things that's been part of the Nielsen rules for a long time," said Ed Gaffney, GroupM's head of implementation research and marketplace analysis in the U.S. "Networks can exclude certain programs from the average. But they have been doing it a lot lately."

Media buyers said it was routine for the networks to cook their ratings a little and that it didn't impact advertising prices. And yet, there is a double edged sword when it comes to digital platforms misreporting their own metrics -- apparently less intentionally than TV -- which has recently resulted in media agency outrage.

The Journal identified NBC as over-using the tactic, which helped give "Nightly News" better numbers by excluding holiday weeks and other down times from the averages. This fuzzy math raised even more flags because to hide certain periods from the tabulations, networks misspell the names of the shows they don't want to be included.

So when someone searches Nielsen's system, "Nightly News" could return one set of numbers and, say, "Nitely Newz" another. The misspelled one represents the less-watched broadcasts.

However, industry watchers and media buyers said they are more than aware of the tactic. It's mostly for publicity purposes, where a network can play around with its data to call its show No. 1 in a certain category.

It does make buying television ads more of a pain, because the buyer has to track down the accurate numbers. "We've had discussions with all the networks," Gaffney said. "They're just making our lives more difficult and we see right through it."

The tactic does invite questions over why networks can play fast and loose with numbers while television's biggest rivals in digital media -- Facebook and Google specifically -- are under a microscope for every measurement they provide.

Television has always been the standard media buyers hold up to pressure Facebook, Google, Twitter, Snapchat and others to improve their metrics reporting.

Facebook was shamed last year when it disclosed a reporting error that wound up overestimating the average length of time viewers spent watching videos on the site. That error did not impact paid media on Facebook.

All the big digital platforms from YouTube to Twitter to Pinterest have been adopting new measurement tools and negotiating way for third-parties like Nielsen to verify their data.

Gaffney said that even given the revelations, television is still the standard that buyers will want digital to emulate and even surpass. "TV has fairly upfront rules," Gaffney said. "You know what the measurement is. It's independent. Third party. It's transparent, and you can interrogate it when you need to."

In order to appease advertisers, Facebook and YouTube have submitted to audits from the Media Ratings Council to verify the numbers they report.

Those audits are still being conducted.

Some industry watchers said that Facebook's misreporting data is different than a network getting creative with Nielsen ratings.

"Misrepresenting a few shows is quite different than common metrics being wrong," said one ad tech insider who didn't want to be named. "Facebook doesn't capitalize on these types of games, they capitalize on the weakness of the overall medium."

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