Round Three in the Great Commercial-Ratings Debate

Nielsen Agrees to 'Experimental' Label for First Release of Data

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NEW YORK ( -- Commercial ratings won't be the new TV ad currency anytime soon. The concept, pushed by advertisers for years and, surprisingly, now supported by the broadcast networks, is having a tough time becoming a reality.
A meeting of TV execs to discuss commercial ratings resolved little beyond Nielsen's agreement to label the first set of such ratings 'experimental, custom research.'
A meeting of TV execs to discuss commercial ratings resolved little beyond Nielsen's agreement to label the first set of such ratings 'experimental, custom research.'

This morning, NBC research chief Alan Wurtzel spearheaded a Camp-David-style meeting of about 35 people from across the TV ad business to discuss the smorgasbord of tricky issues surrounding the definition and collection of commercial ratings.

Among the broadcast-network attendees were ABC President-Sales and Marketing Mike Shaw; Fox's sales president, Jon Nesvig; and CBS's research chief, David Poltrack. Major media buyers also attended, as did representatives from syndication, cable and the Media Ratings Council.

Little resolved
The meeting, however, resolved little beyond Nielsen's agreement to label the first set of commercial ratings "experimental, custom research," though it did offer opposing parties a chance to air their grievances.

"If there were camps, then the broadcast networks and Nielsen were for the production of the [commercial ratings data file] with delivery in November and all else be damned. This tape is going to get made," one participant said.

Nielsen is due to issue the first slate of commercial ratings Nov. 18 and has plans to back-date the ratings to the beginning of the season. Earlier, ABC had pushed to start using commercial ratings as currency as soon as the data was available, but cable network executives -- arguably the most aggrieved party in the whole debate -- and, to a lesser extent, media agencies have essentially blocked changing from the current program-rating-based industry standard until some important details have been worked out.

Cable data 'done wrong'
"It wasn't that cable [data] wasn't as good; it was just done wrong," said Sean Cunningham, president of the Cable Advertising Bureau. For instance, local spots were counted as national spots, and Nielsen Monitor Plus -- a system designed to track ad starts -- failed to pick up on commercials at all during a sweeps month on one cable network. The CAB sent a letter to Nielsen in August detailing its concerns about how the data was compiled. The meeting concluded with the agreement that the cable commercial ratings would not be usable.

"It was a productive discussion, a constructive dialogue, and we continue to meet and discuss with our clients on how we're going to approach the issue," a Nielsen Media Research spokesman said. That point is certainly not in debate. Attendees left with the impression that the day when the industry adopts commercial ratings as the standard by which TV ad time is bought and sold is a long way off.

"None of us really felt like [commercial ratings] were a done deal, but we owed it to ourselves to take it seriously," Mr. Wurtzel said. "The question is: When will it be ready?"

One executive present said he believed commercial ratings would eventually become a reality, but suggested they were at least a few years off.

Thorny debate
On the perennially thorny "live plus" debate, which centers on whether the broadcast networks ought to be paid for people playing back shows on digital video recorders up to seven days after the original broadcast, the group appeared to agree it made more sense to consider "live plus 48 hours" ratings rather than the three data streams Nielsen currently provides. They include live viewing, live-plus-same-day viewing and live-plus-seven-day viewing.

Mr. Wurtzel denied that broadcast networks are merely backing commercial ratings because it portrays rivals, such as cable, in a bad light. "We're the only country left that doesn't use commercial ratings, and the buyers have been talking to us about accountability."

He said the meeting was "valuable," adding: "It's very hard to get consensus; at least no one got physical."

For those of you trying to keep up on the sidelines, here's a quick rundown:

What was decided
  • Nielsen will issue commercial ratings data Nov. 18, but will label the data "experimental, custom analysis" and will recommend that it not be used as true currency data.

  • Nielsen will regard direct-response programming as commercials, not public-service announcements.
What is still up for debate
  • Whether the data should be released in two slices: broadcast-network commercial ratings first and cable ratings later (once a variety of issues have been cleared up). Nielsen will continue to discuss the timing of cable data with clients. Agencies don't want to spend time analyzing unstable data that might end up being reissued.

  • How Nielsen will offer commercial ratings on sports programming when games are broadcast to only a portion of the country. Nielsen's ability to measure commercials appears limited to prime-time entertainment programming.

  • Cable executives cite examples where Nielsen couldn't be sure whether spots were local or national, leading to confusion. (Commercial ratings are only calculated on national ad spots.) In other cases, Nielsen's Monitor Plus product, which identifies the start and end of a commercial, failed to pick up the existence of ad spots at all on some cable channels, leading some to conclude Nielsen needs to find a new way to track cable.

  • The Media Ratings Council recommended auditing Nielsen products such as Monitor Plus.
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