Nielsen appears to be trying to move forward with a new audience-measurement technology that many TV networks think still isn’t ready for primetime.
The measurement giant in September backed off an effort to incorporate first-party data from Amazon in its study of the audience for the company’s streamcast of “Thursday Night Football.” The move would have marked a first step toward utilizing inputs from the companies Nielsen measures as it produces its widely used tabulation of national viewership, and many TV executives denounced the plan.
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Nielsen seems to be renewing its efforts. At a meeting held by the Media Rating Council on Thursday, Nielsen executives tried to introduce the prospect once more, according to three people famiiar with the proceedings. People familiar with the gathering, conducted over Zoom, were dismayed by Nielsen’s inabilty to respond to criticism about the technology that has been raised weeks ago. TV networks believe Nielsen hopes that the MRC, an industry body that grants accreditation for the use audience measures, could soon put the concept to a vote of approval.
An MRC spokesman said the organization “can’t comment on an assessment in process,” but noted that a review of Nielsen’s use of Amazon audience data around “Thursday Night Football” is “ongoing.” Nielsen was unable to provide an immediate comment.
Use of the new data could plunge the industry into multiple quandaries. Not only could it give Amazon an advantage in counting viewers, but it would have Nielsen, which has long relied on its own independent examinations, start entering into new partnerships with the very organizations it is supposed to scrutinize without favor. Adopting the Amazon data could potentially also give a nod to live programming over scripted, says one person familiar with deliberations around the topic, a result that may not sit well with Hollywood unions that have been jockeying with media companies over the very issue of counting audiences.
In a different era, audience data flowed from a single source outside of the media companies creating TV shows. Now, a good deal of it is private. Getting a peek at audience dynamics on streaming hubs like Netflix, Max or Peacock isn’t as easy to do as sifting through reams of Nielsen audience results. Nielsen’s calculations are the bedrock of much of the media sector’s economics, with advertisers, media buying agencies and talent firm all crunching the data to figure out the value of TV series, sports events, news programs and commercials.
The NFL is in favor of the use of Amazon’s data. Like the networks, the league believes Nielsen’s technology has become outmoded over time as more viewers take to new devices and technologies to watch their favorite pieces of entertainment, and has supported the notion of using every company’s first-party audience data.
But the relationship between Nielsen and the networks, long fraught, has been souring for the past few years. Nielsen’s flaws have been on full display since the coronavirus pandemic, when the networks proved the measurement company’s inability to keep track of certain panelists and their technology during the contagion resulted in significant undercounting of viewership that was likely watching more video, not less, as consumers were forced to hunker down in their homes. Earlier this year, Nielsen acknowledged undercounting the audience for Fox’s broadcast of Super Bowl LVII — which, after a new examination of data, was shown to have drawn a record crowd to the big gridiron classic.
Meanwhile, Amazon and Nielsen have grown closer. In August of last year, the two struck a three-year pact that calls for Nielsen to measure “Thursday Night Football” and determine how its viewership stacks up against traditional TV. The two companies said at the time that the agreement marked the first time a streaming service had one of its live programs measured as part of national TV audiences. In addition to the game itself, Nielsen’s remit called for it to examine pregame and postgame programming; activity around the shows on Amazon’s Twitch gaming outlet; and activity on local TV stations in the teams’ home markets, which Amazon controls. So-called “out of home” viewership — people who watch content in bars, offices, hotels and the like — is also to be measured.
Yet the networks have been testing similar efforts. Their disparagement of the Nielsen-Amazon tie-up comes after they have spent the past few years trying to get advertisers and Nielsen to accept new audience measures based on data they supply. Paramount Global, NBCUniversal and Warner Bros. Discovery have been particularly vocal about the need to find other measurement technologies as Nielsen moves less quickly than they feel is appropriate to try and count audiences who stream their favorites, rather than watching them at a regular day and time each week via a linear TV network.
These companies have enlisted measurement-tech firms including Comscore, Videoamp and iSpot to provide new data streams that offer a look at audience size and behavior. The trouble? Few of these efforts have been validated by the MRC, though some of Comscore’s and iSpot’s work has been examined and is in the process of being audited.
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