Nielsen Undercounted Viewers During Pandemic, Audit Finds

Tim Baysinger

Nielsen was undercounting viewers during the pandemic, according to an audit by the Media Rating Council (MRC). The findings come a few weeks after TV networks signaled their fear to the ratings measurement firm that their ratings were being artificially deflated.

The MRC said on Monday that it believes total usage of television (TUT) by adults 18-49 — the demographic that sets the majority of ad prices — was understated by 2-6% during the month of February, which was the timeframe the MRC used to conduct the audit. Additionally, the MRC believes that “persons using television” (PUT) among that same age group was down by 1-5%.

Because of the pandemic, Nielsen has not sent field agents to its participating homes, a routine procedure that helps to ensure the ratings that the company puts out every day are accurate. The TV networks are worried their ratings have been undercounted over the last year, arguing that Nielsen’s processes have been more faulty because of the lack of in-home check-ins and that Nielsen counted homes that residents may have left during the pandemic.

Last month, the Video Advertising Bureau, a trade group that represents TV networks to advertisers and agencies, sent a letter to Nielsen regarding the undercounts and asked it to submit to an audit. At the time of VAB’s president and CEO Sean Cunningham’s letter, Nielsen said it was already undergoing an audit by the Media Rating Council, something that it undergoes each year.

Cunningham added that the networks believe Nielsen’s counts included more “zero-viewing TV homes” than normal, and that Nielsen was grappling with “a 20% loss of the panel” during the pandemic.

The timing of this is no coincidence:  Amid a long-term erosion of viewers, the 2020-21 TV season has seen an even bigger decrease in viewership. It’s also the time of the year when advertisers and their agencies set the bulk of their ad buying commitments for the next year in what is known as the Upfronts.

“The impacts to estimates will vary among different demographic groups and dayparts, and percentage differences, when applied to program estimates, can be misleading because of the small size of the absolute ratings of many programs, which can distort change percentages,” the MRC said. 

Nielsen did not immediately respond to TheWrap’s request for comment on the MRC’s findings.

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