Editorial: Nielsen makes a wise decision on census data

Sep 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Nielsen Media Research is caught between a rock and a hard place as it re-examines its audience estimates to incorporate new population data from the 2000 census.
The problem stems from the gradual rollout of 2000 figures by the U.S. Census Bureau. At the time Nielsen made its universe estimates in advance of the 2001-02 season, key pieces of census data had yet to be reported. The rating service made its estimates using the most recent data available at that time, and buyers and sellers negotiated their 2001-02 advertising deals based on those figures.
When the 2000 numbers finally came in early this year, they included some significant changes, notably a larger audience of young viewers than previously estimated. Nielsen recently supplied its clients with market-by-market estimates that incorporate the new information.
Now everyone with a stake in the process has a different idea about what Nielsen should do-and whatever it does, it will alienate some segment of the industry.
The networks have been especially vocal. The WB in particular, believing its younger-skewing audience was substantially larger than initially thought, would like to see revisions in the estimates on which 2001-02 ad deals were based. Ratings-challenged ABC and Fox, buoyed by the possibility that they may not have underdelivered by as much as previously believed, are also motivated to push for updated figures.
Advertising executives, on the other hand, are wisely urging caution, warning that once revisions start they can quickly get out of hand. “Either you bite the bullet and everybody gets credit or nobody. You can’t do it piecemeal,” one senior executive said.
One criticism some ad buyers have expressed involves timing: Maybe Nielsen should have waited until the new season was under way, and make-goods were completed, before causing a ruckus by unveiling new figures. But had Nielsen done so it would have been hassled by the networks for sitting on the information until it was too late to do anything about it.
There’s a certain injustice in the fact that Nielsen comes under pressure now. Its point in releasing the new data was to provide accurate, up-to-date information in a timely manner, just what a rating service is supposed to do.
The bottom line is the fuss over the new numbers appears to be much ado about nothing, if only because a wholesale revamping of 2001-02 advertising deals would be all but impossible. Those in the industry who are calling for such action just aren’t being realistic.
Nielsen has indicated that it is providing the new data only to give clients an analytical tool for the upcoming season and will not revise its estimates for 2001-02.
That is the right decision.