Media Consortium Contemplates Competiton To Nielsen

The Financial Times is reporting that some of the top media companies are exploring options for creating an alternative to Nielsen Media’s monopolistic control of the television ratings system.

“Media participants in the consortium – including networks owned by NBC Universal, Time Warner, News Corp, Viacom, CBS, Discovery and Walt Disney – expect it to be operational by September.”

Neilsen’s service has been the subject of criticism for decades. Its methodology is virtually guaranteed to misrepresent the actual TV audience. Out-of-home viewing isn’t included. This is a significant portion of the marketplace that includes offices, dorms, hotels, bars, etc. Their sampling is skewed by being limited just to those respondents who aren’t creeped out by having a device attached to their TV that records everything they watch. They do not account for cultural viewing habits where certain groups of viewers gather together to view programs. That has a disproportional impact on young and low income viewers, as well as sports fans. And the new media marketplace (i.e. digital viewing) is almost completely ignored.

So it is well past time to overhaul this archaic and inaccurate process of measuring TV usage. But don’t get too excited. I have seen at least three of these consortiums come and go. It is a high risk, low probability exercise that is almost doomed to fail before it begins.

Here is how it generally goes. The stakeholders (producers, syndicators, advertisers) come together agreeing that the status quo is untenable and something has to be done. Then they solicit prospective enterprises to fill the gaps that Nielsen is missing. The consortium promises to support the new venture and help them to develop a product that all parties will find useful. The new venture invests millions of dollars and thousands of hours in building their service. At some point they are ready to provide the consortium with sample data. In the instances that I witnessed, the new data was often in conflict with the data from Nielsen, but it was well supported and appeared to differ only because they were more accurate than Nielsen.

This is where the trouble starts. With numbers that differ from Nielsen, some parties will be up while others are down. The parties whose numbers are lower will immediately object to the new service and complain that they are not being represented properly. Then the consortium begins to collapse. As the aggrieved parties back away, the remaining members are faced with greater burdens to support the new venture because the cost is distributed between fewer players. Plus, these higher burdens come as the project is in turmoil, which makes any continued investment even more risky, and thus, less likely.

A peculiarity of the television advertising world is that these folks prefer inaccurate data to accurate data that makes them look bad. Maybe that isn’t really peculiar, just self-serving and dishonest (like that never happens in business). But it bodes ill for any enterprise that seeks to promote themselves by boasting about their accuracy.

As the consortium and the new venture have been wrestling to put together the new service, Nielsen has been busily disparaging the new venture as untested and unreliable. At the same time, they have started to adopt the methods and features of the new venture and slash their own fees to undercut the new competition.

The result is that the new venture eventually loses the necessary support to be sustainable and quietly fades away. Nielsen, after preserving their monopoly, retreats to their previous levels of poor service and unresponsiveness to their clients. And with the threat of competition removed, they inevitably increase their fees to pre-consortium levels.

At this point, there is no reason to presume that this effort will end any differently. Any business that is lured into this space had better be careful and apprise themselves of the history of these projects. I don’t doubt the sincerity of those who are promoting this initiative. But I suspect that they have little historical memory of what they are proposing and they may be a bit naive. Time will tell.