The Media Rating Council has suspended Nielsen’s accreditation for national TV ratings, in the latest twist in a long-running drama over the efforts of a third party to effectively measure video viewing.
The move, which will take effect in mid-September, applies to Nielsen’s national television service as well as Local People Meters and Set Meter Markets. Such suspensions occur, the MRC explained, when a company is found to have “material standards non-compliance or operational issues that are deemed to have exerted an adverse effect on the service.”
Opinions vary as to the importance of the MRC’s decision. Nielsen will continue to be free to deliver its data to its customers and report it publicly, though the episode could give more ammunition to critics who insist it has been undercounting viewing. As industry reactions started to ricochet, a Disney Advertising Sales spokesperson told Deadline the company is “increasingly concerned with inaccuracies and irregularities” in Nielsen data. (See the company’s full statement below.)
The MRC is a non-profit organization created in 1963 with government backing and a mandate to monitor stakeholders in the television business in the wake of the 1950s quiz-show scandals. A fairly obscure body, it audits more than 100 ratings products across television, radio, print and digital media, as well as the advertising and measurement sectors. As it assessed Nielsen, MRC CEO George Ivie said the “broad range of industry constituencies” became “strongly unified in its positions on these matters.”
A Nielsen spokesperson responded to the MRC’s move by saying it would not slow the company’s data flow. “While we are disappointed with this outcome, the suspension will not impact the usability of our data,” the spokesperson said. “Nielsen remains the currency of choice for media companies, advertisers and agencies. We are committed to the audit process and during this pause in accreditation we will work with the MRC on resolving this suspension. We will also take the opportunity to focus on innovating our core products and continue to deliver data that clients can rely on, ultimately creating a better media future for the entire industry.”
In recent months, media companies and advertisers have ramped up criticism of Nielsen. NBCUniversal recently issued a request for proposals to a wide array of third-party firms, seeking to create a new system of measurement. NBCU and its peers have offered advertisers a blended set of metrics in recent years to highlight social media reach, delayed-viewing statistics and other proof points as they cope with secular declines in live ratings.
As long as the Nielsen Co. has measured television, its methods have been criticized by those invested in the traditional bundle, which still generates upwards of $60 billion in annual advertising spending. Streaming has created massive disruption to the way viewing is counted, with tech players exerting enormous control over the data harvested from their customers.
Sean Cunningham, CEO of the Video Advertising Bureau, a trade group representing networks and ad firms, didn’t hold back in his reaction. The MRC suspension, he said, “must be seen by Nielsen as a loud change-or-die challenge. In fact, all measurement and currency providers with big future aspirations in the video advertising sector must take the 2021 mandate for real transparency, full and deep audience capture, urgent innovation and rigorous verification as mission-critical for them all. Advertisers should expect to see more innovation in the next three years in video measurement and currency than what was achieved in the last 30 years, time has officially expired on friction and frustration.”
Disney’s full statement stressed that accurate measurement of viewing across linear, streaming and digital platforms is “paramount” to the company. “To that end, we work with multiple data and measurement providers, including Nielsen, to develop best-in-class solutions for our partners,” the company said. “We have become increasingly concerned with inaccuracies and irregularities in the data reported by Nielsen, and urged them to more quickly pivot their processes and practices to fix known issues.
“We are, and have always been, in support of two fundamental paths: first, the evolution of Nielsen’s methodology and measurement to encompass all the ways people watch content today; and second, the imperative for the industry to have accreditation to ensure the quality of the data upon which we transact. The modernization of Nielsen’s measurement is long overdue, and that goal is critically dependent on the integrity of the panel, which remains compromised. We applaud the VAB and the MRC for taking the necessary steps toward quality data and transparency in the marketplace.”
At issue with the MRC and the VAB specifically was Nielsen’s decision to pull field employees back during Covid-19. They say that resulted in undercounting of both linear and streaming viewership. Nielsen has said that it made the call out of safety concerns for workers.
Nielsen had previously requested a pause in the MRC’s accreditation review process, saying it is in the midst of a major update of its offerings. The company has said it will roll out Nielsen One in fall 2022. The company has described Nielsen One as a comprehensive set of tools designed to capture how video is viewed across streaming and linear.