Alternatives to Nielsen on Table

Dec 6, 2004  •  Post A Comment

As a year of unprecedented tumult comes to an end, Nielsen Media Research hears its assorted constituencies and critics singing, “Auld complaints are not forgotten.”

The TV ratings monopoly spent 2004 trying to pacify assorted viewer advocacy groups, politicians, would-be regulators, and, of course, its clients, for whom ratings and demographic data is currency that can be affected by Nielsen’s decisions to deploy new services or Nielsen’s pace in adapting to new technologies.

Nielsen will start 2005 with a cross-section of advertising research professionals exploring a foreign concept, the Joint Industry Committee model used in other countries. JIC long has been regarded as likely to violate U.S. antitrust laws because it would involve Nielsen clients banding together-even though the purpose of adopting the model would be to foster competition for Nielsen as well as to audit audience measurement and to set and enforce standards.

This is one of the questions that will be explored at an unprecedented information-gathering conference being organized by the Advertising Research Foundation in late January or early February. The meeting had been scheduled for Dec. 6 but was caught in a year-end time crunch.

“We are going to explore in depth the subject of accountability of TV audience measurement providers with special focus on situations characterized by natural monopolies,” said Bob Barocci, president and CEO of the ARF. He said the JIC will be one of “six organizational structures employed around the world” that will be discussed.

Many clients think the idea of a JIC is more feasible than ever now because local, state and national lawmakers and regulators were reminded in 2004 of Nielsen’s monopoly status and its relative freedom from oversight and regulation. For example, despite widespread uproar, Nielsen launched its controversial Local People Meter systems in four cities.

A JIC would allow other companies, such as Taylor Sofres Nelson, to bid for the right to supply some of the services now available only through Nielsen.

JIC might be less likely now than in the past to be interpreted in D.C. as anti-competitive.

“When we go to Washington, we say we have no control over the measurement system,” one network research executive said. “I think everybody has talked to their own lawyers and companies and has come to the conclusion that this is not a waste of time.”

Paul Donato, Nielsen’s senior VP and chief research officer, is chairman of the ARF but recuses himself on issues related to TV measurement. “It should not be surprising that [2004] was somewhat of a tumultuous year,” he said, given the extent of the change Nielsen made.

“I think, I hope, I believe things are calming down,” Mr. Donato said.

As for what role Nielsen might yet play in an ARF-organized discussion about possible alternatives to Nielsen, Mr. Donato said, “We actually hadn’t decided because it’s an unusual position to be in.”

Susan Nathan, senior VP and director of media knowledge for Universal McCann, expects that a JIC will be a big part of an ARF meeting, whenever it is held.

“I assume that what will come out of this is at least informing the industry as to whether establishing a JIC is legally possible in the United States, and if so, what are the ramifications of that and what are the pros and cons of doing it and will that help our cause,” she said. “I’m hoping that what they’re going to say is they’ve further explored this, and this is a possibility and do we move forward.”

Another advertising agency research executive noted that this is a big change in the United States. The executive recalled an ARF meeting in Montreal a decade ago where lawyers advised the network and agency people present that they couldn’t use JICs, even in Canada.

The JIC would help the industry deal with Nielsen’s monopoly by providing “oversight over Nielsen and how they do what they do and how they measure what they measure and making sure that they’re measuring what we need on a timely basis,” Ms. Nathan said. At this point, “Nielsen has definitely been the 800-pound gorilla. It’s their candy and they can sell it the way they choose to, which is not always beneficial to their clients,” she said.

That’s been especially true in analyzing data. “They are not very good at software development,” Ms. Nathan said. “Currently all the minute-by-minute data is available through a rather clunky, very difficult system called N*power that Nielsen developed and that Nielsen forces their clients to use.”

Bringing competitors into the field could ease the situation, but potential competitors in the past have been unable to acquire the financial backing they needed. And one researcher questioned how well any new competitors would be funded with the networks, most recently NBC, signing new long-term deals with Nielsen.

Getting the networks and agencies to work together is problematic.

“The agencies would say that Nielsen listens more to their broadcaster clients than to their agency clients. The broadcasters would say that they actually listen to their agencies more than the broadcasters. I think that nobody’s ever satisfied because we don’t ever feel that Nielsen is responsive to everybody’s needs,” Ms. Nathan said. “In Nielsen’s defense, it’s very difficult to meet everybody’s needs because, clearly, everybody has different needs. But providing better access at more reasonable costs is something that I think everybody wants.

The next major issue that is coming to a high simmer is how data tracking PVR/DVR viewing will be delivered. Nielsen will begin installing its new digital Active/Passive Metering System at a pace of 100 homes a month next spring.