Commercial-Ratings Rancor Derails Rollout

DVR Debate and Cable's Worries Over Data Force Nielsen to Rethink Plans

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NEW YORK ( -- With $40 billion in national TV ad dollars at stake, the only thing the broadcasters, cable networks, syndicators and media agencies can agree on is Nielsen Media Research's new commercial ratings aren't what they want.
The sticking point this time is a debate over just when the value of a DVR viewer expires.
The sticking point this time is a debate over just when the value of a DVR viewer expires.

The plan to report commercial ratings in addition to program ratings --postponed late last week for the second time -- has been picked over by all players, who are trying to slice the numbers in ways that portray them most positively. Two weeks ago, cable networks boycotted the plan until they got what they wanted. Now the broadcast networks have put the release of commercial data on ice until they can have their way too. That leaves marketers and agencies frustrated and weary of the debate. Despite an industry willingness to make commercial ratings a reality, the hurdles to getting there have been more numerous than any expected.

Time-shifting sticking point
The sticking point this time is a debate over just when the value of a DVR viewer expires. Last June, the broadcast networks pressed Nielsen to issue data on commercial ratings under the assumption they would be compensated for all time-shifted audiences as long as viewers watched the commercial -- even if they watched it a week after the program originally aired. Some advertisers, such as movie studios and retailers, were unwilling to pay for viewers watching these ads, and the subject became a major bone of contention during upfront negotiations. The agencies won, and the networks agreed to sell ad time on the basis of live viewers only, potentially leaving money on the table.

On Oct. 30, Nielsen issued a new report on DVR viewing that revealed around 90% of shows are viewed within four days. But Nielsen's commercial-ratings file reports people who watched programming as it aired-that is, live; those who watched it using a DVR on the same day (live plus same day); and those who watched programming by the seventh day after it originally aired (live plus seven days). Some broadcasters soon realized that after losing last year's upfront battle over time-shifted viewing, advertisers would be unlikely to swallow commercial ratings on a seven-day basis next time around either.

"Live plus seven may not be a deal that can be made," one network sales chief said.

Three or four days later?
The networks also realized they don't want to sell simply on live plus same day. A good compromise may be to make deals using a live-plus-three or -four-day commercial rating. But which one? Three? Four? That's for the next round to decide.

David Poltrack, CBS Corp.'s chief research officer, suggested that some advertisers, such as grocery or packaged goods, might still value a live-plus-seven commercial rating and could chose to buy on that basis.

Nielsen's Sara Erichson, Nielsen's general manager-national services, said the industry looks like it is coalescing around a single metric that would measure DVR playback of commercials at around three or four days after a show is initially broadcast.

Nielsen is holding a three-day national client meeting on the issue but is also planning another meeting later this month to get its timeline back on track.

Cable and syndication have their own issues over how commercial minutes should be reported, leaving Nielsen with a Sisyphean task.
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