January 28, 2007
Nielsen's Compromise: Six Streams of Commercial Data and Let the Industry Sort It Out

The controversy over commercial ratings never seems to end, but Nielsen's latest plan, announced earlier this month, will be to offer six different streams of data for both advertising buyers and networks to choose from and let them sort out the right balance for what they are looking for. Nielsen, in this case, is washing its hands clean of the impossible battle between various sides of the television industry over what the commercial ratings should mean, how DVR viewers are counted, how long of a delay should be recorded, etc.

The current plan is for the six streams to be made available in May, with each stream counting a different amount of delayed viewing, ranging from live viewing only to playback within seven days, as the two extremes. The plan is to provide, in between, DVR playback on the same day, live + 1 day, live + 2 days, and live + 3 days.

I guess Nielsen just decided to get on with it, once the company realized that no one was ever going to be happy with any particular compromise when dealing with something as delicate as the commercial ratings. Never has something more imprecise been the currency of trade for an industry the way Nielsen ratings are for television. Networks feel that ignoring the growing number of DVR viewers is costing them significant profits and want those DVR viewers counted but also have to realize that, as opposed with live viewing, DVR viewers have their commercial-skipping behaviors recorded.

But, as Jon Lafayette with TelevisionWeek points out, "It remains to be seen whether the networks and ad buyers will be able to agree on using any of these options as the basis for ad sales next season."

This discussion first started in June, when I naively wrote, "By this fall, the media research company will be providing ratings for braodcast networks showing the average ratings of their commercials playing nationwide. The data will provide not only live viewers but those who watch the programs on digital recorders within a week." However, even at that point, CBS voiced its distrust in the way that ad buyers would manipulate those viewers, especially in overemphasizing that people were skipping commercials, a behavior that everyone always knew was happening to some degree.

Then, groups started haggling over VCR viewers and whether programs that were recorded were ever actually watched, as I wrote about in July. Some channels, like The Weather Channel, talked about true minute-by-minute commercial ratings. By August, the VCR questions still weren't answered, and it was obvious that the commercial ratings weren't going to be used anytime soon, with an industry in major disagreement about how such questions should be answered. The announcement of a delay until December came in October, followed by NBC/Universal pulling out completely.

Yet, with the number of DVR viewers continuing to rise, the television executives were adamant that these viewers who timeshift their viewing be counted, as I wrote about in November, alongside Nielsen VOD measurement for program viewing.

I wrote back in November that "one thing has been proven over the past few weeks--the tensions over the viability of the 30-second spot are being fueled into the continuing debate about commercial ratings. The industry has been at war for a while as to whether the DVR is going to be the technology that finally proves that a lot of people don't watch 30-second spots. We started writing about all this around this time last year. That was when the networks came together and claimed that the paradigm the industry has lived under for decades is as vibrant as ever."

However, in December, some consensus was reached. I wrote of Nielsen's plans to make the raw data available at some point in the future as the compromise that journalists John Consoli and Anthony Crupi with MediaWeek were "correct--and perhaps understating it substantially--when they say there are "still a lot of kinks to work out," such as trying to figure out how to measure playback on VCRs. Since there is no way to measure VCR playback, CBS' David Poltrack has asked Nielsen to do a study offline among Nielsen households 'to come up with some metric that will assign a value to VCR viewing played back in regular mode.'"

Now that a date has been put in place and final plans for six streams, what will the industry do in response? Will an industry standard develop, or will everybody be trying to negotiate on a different currency? Will ad buying start to resemble conversations up on the Tower of Babel?