WB claims Nielsen cost net $45 mil

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AOL Time Warner's WB is challenging Nielsen Media Research's timing in updating its TV universe population data figures to reflect the most current U.S. census data, and claims Nielsen's decision to wait cost the network $30 million to $45 million last season.

Jed Petrick, WB president-chief operating officer, said Nielsen did not adjust its databases to match 2000 U.S. census data in a timely manner, even though a significant fluctuation in the WB's core 12-to-34-year-old demographic was noted. The new census data significantly increases the population of 12-to 34-year-olds by 5%-the most significant change of any TV demographic group.

"I'm incredibly disappointed in Nielsen in its action, especially from a company that stands for fairness and accuracy and is the lone source for information in this industry," Mr. Petrick said.

The universe population data represents the number of actual people in each demographic group. TV ratings are based on those figures to determine how much of the population a network or particular show is reaching. So the decision to not update until the beginning of this fall season meant Nielsen significantly underreported the number of people watching the WB for the 2001-2002 season, Mr. Petrick said, and as a result left him with less inventory to sell.

Media buyers surmise the real issue behind WB's complaint is make-goods. If the WB can get advertisers to agree to take the uptick in its audience into account, it won't have to honor make-goods from last season.

In late May, Nielsen Media Research announced that the new TV universe demographics data would be put into effect on Aug. 26. Traditionally, when new census data is released Nielsen has waited two seasons to put the numbers into effect.

immediate action

But Mr. Petrick said unlike previous decades, which may have shown a slight 1% or less change in the population, the dramatic rise of the 12-34 age group should have warranted immediate action-especially for the three-month period of June to August. He believes Nielsen should go back and recalculate all ratings for the 2001-2002 broadcast season. "The WB had been undercounted all year long," he said. "And it's cost us revenue."

Because the network was actually reaching more of its core demographic than reflected in Nielsen data, advertisers were sold more spots than they needed to reach their audience goals. That locked up inventory the WB could have sold to other advertisers in the hot scatter market, WB executives maintain.

The WB produced a worksheet that allows advertisers to re-post their 2001-2002 schedule with the new universe estimates. WB gave this to Nielsen, and Nielsen agreed to give it to advertisers if they requested it, WB executives said.

"My hope is that an advertiser, in the interest of fairness, would look at these new population bases," Mr. Petrick said. "I would hope that advertisers wouldn't think it's fair to undercount us."

At least one media buyer expressed concern. "You have to use the numbers for a lot of reasons," said Lyle Schwartz, senior VP-director of media research for WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia, New York. "Maybe we need to improve our off-census projections" to update them every year.

A Nielsen spokeswoman said that it was not going to readjust data for last season, in keeping with how it has done things in previous census years.

"It was very much like this in 1980 and 1990," she said. "We had clients that said we did the right thing; we had clients who said we did the wrong thing. We're leaving it up to our clients to decide what to do."

Viacom network MTV would also seem to benefit if Nielsen were to make a change. But an MTV executive said: "We decided that though it would increase impressions, there is a procedure [that should be adhered to]. We agree with Nielsen-even though it might benefit us. It's not as though Nielsen made a mistake."

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