Nielsen Reconfirms Dreary Cable Universe Numbers After ESPN Complaint

Nielsen has bad news today for cable network owners:  It just reconfirmed the November subscriber universe estimate it released last week that showed big declines for most channels — including a 3.1% drop for ESPN, its biggest-ever monthly loss.

The ratings company says it “has verified that November estimates were accurate as originally released and that all the processes that go into the creation of these estimates were done correctly.”

The new numbers will go into its system on Monday. They show household declines for all but 37 of the 119 networks Nielsen measures, Pivotal Research’s Brian Wieser says.

Nielsen agreed to take a second look at the data after ESPN charged that they reflected “a dramatic, unexplainable variation over prior months’ reporting.”

Today the sports service says that it still considers Nielsen’s snapshot “a historic anomaly for the industry and inconsistent with much more moderated trends observed by other respected third party analysts.”

Among other things, Nielsen does not measure viewers of digital live streaming services such as Sling TV — also known as virtual MVPDs. ESPN says it hopes to “work with Nielsen to capture this growing market in future reports.”

Nielsen says that the decline in the number of cable subscribers at specific networks “was driven primarily by an overall decline of approximately half a percentage point (0.55) in the Cable Plus universe, meaning fewer households are subscribing to cable.”

That cut across networks, and was “not driven by household changes in tiers or packages.”

Specific networks that lost household reach include Spike (-6.5%), CMT (-8.6%), and ESPN2 (-3.0%),  Wieser reports. Company groups seeing declines include A+E Networks (-2.9%), Time Warner (-2.2%), Viacom (-1.9%), and Disney (-1.9%)

Some channels saw increases including Discovery’s Velocity (+9.5%), and Fox Movie Channel (+7.6%). Company groups improving their reach include Crown (+3.8%), CBS (+1.7%), and Starz (+1.0%).

Nielsen says that it is “researching new and emerging technologies and multichannel providers” and will add them “at a future date and in cooperation and agreement with our clients.”

But Wieser says that the virtual MVPD audience is “very small.”

ESPN’s problems, he says, reflect its decision to give cable and satellite companies greater flexibility to leave it off some tiers in return for higher per-subscriber fees.

The company’s reaction to Nielsen, the analyst adds, “serves to highlight that complaints from media owners or others who would benefit from adjustments to the data regarding Nielsen or any other audience measurement provider should generally be taken with a proverbial grain of salt.”


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