Nielsen Reverses Decision to Drop Live Local TV Ratings

After Media Agencies Protest, Measurement Firm Agrees to Keep Data Stream for Now

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NEW YORK ( -- Nielsen will continue to make live viewership data for local TV viewers available in the wake of a furor from media buyers who argued that removing such information would leave them paying for inflated audiences who often skip past ads by using digital video recorders.

After saying just a few weeks ago that it intended to stop making available easily digestible data showing the size of live local audiences, Nielsen said in a preliminary draft of a letter to be sent out to clients that it will now keep that data available for an interim period while also measuring viewers who watch shows on a live-plus-same-day basis. The plan, which Nielsen is expected to announce shortly, is set to go into effect on Jan. 7, 2010, and stay in place through March.

The shift is the latest development in an ongoing quest to develop better ratings-collection methods as audiences' viewing habits are changed due to new technology, including digital video recorders. Since late June, Nielsen has explored ways to improve the rating of local-TV broadcasts to take into account viewers who watch shows minutes or days later with a DVR. National TV networks have already switched to commercial ratings -- also known as "C3" -- that measure what portion of viewers do not skip past advertising. Local TV outlets are not judged in a similar way due to several technical glitches that make doing so difficult. Local TV is still judged on program ratings, not how many people watch the advertising.

In the client letter, Nielsen said the move to keep the live data available was simply a "modification" to its original plan and that it intended to move forward on efforts to make live-plus-same-day data the standard for local-TV measurement. The live data will remain available "for an interim period of time as we continue to talk to our clients and they continue to talk to each other," Nielsen said.

Ad buyers frowned on the earlier Nielsen decision, which was slated to start in January, largely because much of the business they currently do hinges on live viewership. Since there is no institutionalized measure currently in place for local viewers who use DVRs and yet don't skip ads, buyers believe live audience data remains the most accurate.

"Live ratings are not a long-term answer, because people are going to continue to view on a delayed basis," said Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer at WPP's Group M. Still, he said, "we need to stay there until we come up with a satisfactory replacement, which I think we can do."

For its part, Nielsen believes live-plus-same-day viewing is becoming more prevalent. "Neglecting playback affects both reach and frequency of advertising schedules. Using live-only ratings data can potentially lead to flaws in planning and buying and distortion of TV performance, impacting consumer behavior -- leading one to pick the wrong mix of programs and weight for advertising schedules," the company said in its client letter.

Yet Mr. Scanzoni said live-plus-same-day viewing as currently measured for local broadcast leads to an "inflated" sense of audience. In the end, he suggested, Nielsen, local-station owners and advertisers are going to have to come together as they did to create to the "C3" measures, now prevalent for national broadcast and cable measures.

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