Super Bowl TV ratings were probably better than they looked in February – and so were those for lots of shows. Nielsen undercounted total TV watching by anywhere from 2% to 6% in February, according to the Media Rating Council, because of problems with how it’s been maintaining its panel during the pandemic.
The undercount in February could have reduced ad revenue for media companies by $39 million to $234 million, said Sean Cunningham, CEO of the industry group VAB, in a Monday media briefing. He believes undercounting has gone on far longer, intensifying in June with major changes Nielsen made in field procedures “unbeknownst to Nielsen clients,” he said. Total ad revenue impact could possibly be in the billions of dollars, he added.
The new MRC finding is based on analyses and simulations by Nielsen after complaints last month by the VAB. The MRC said changes to Nielsen’s meter maintenance, curtailment of recruitment of new panelists and extending time limits for people to stay on the panel beyond the normal two years, led to the undercount.
The MRC believes Nielsen’s Total Usage of Television (TUT) data for people ages 18-48 was understated between 2% and 6% in February, while estimates of “persons using television” was understated between 1% and 5%.
Undercounting varied by demographic group and program, the MRC said, with ratings for many shows barely affected. Overall, 93% of the commercial ratings for a show watched in the three days after it airs live, an industry standard known as C3, saw changes of 0.02 points or less, according to the Nielsen simulation cited by the MRC.
But the number of Nielsen households showing no TV viewing whatsoever soared 120% in February from a year ago – representing more than 5.6% of households, -- according to VAB. Representation of Black and Hispanic households was hit particularly hard, each down more than 25% in February 2021 compared with February 2020, the group said. That compares to a decline of 18% for white households.
Reported viewership by Black and Hispanic households didn’t decline by the same amount, since Nielsen attempted to deal with the change by increasing weight for samples from remaining Black and Hispanic households, but each remaining panelist had a lot more impact on the count.
Last week the VAB released data saying 9,400 homes in Nielsen’s monthly panel of nearly 30,000 homes had malfunctioning meters until Nielsen returned to normal maintenance in late March. After that, Nielsen’s reported total usage of TV (TUT) number immediately began to rebound in April.
“All the data we were showing them got them to go back out in the field, which is a good thing,” Cunningham says. “But they steadfastly and publicly denied there were any defects from their public ratings.”
While Nielsen has cited COVID-19 safety protocols and local health regulations for having to stop maintenance of equipment for households, Cummingham pointed to the company’s May 6 earnings call where management cited $100 million in cost savings from such areas as its field and call center operations leading to better-than-expected earnings.
“Throughout the pandemic, Nielsen has been fully transparent in collaborating with the MRC and focused on procedural changes to support its panelists, people and the integrity of currency metrics used by the industry,” the company said in a statement. “As a result of the some of the COVID measures we implemented, we found that there was some understatement of audience estimates. Since early March 2021, Nielsen has aggressively returned to pre-COVID maintenance procedures and will continue to rigorously work with the MRC and its clients to understand the impacts of both the pandemic and changing consumer viewing behaviors on data and analysis.”
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