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Case for Consumers

Nielsen falls short in ratings reboot

(Credit: Getty Images)
(Credit: Getty Images)

The company has failed to keep pace, both with changes in technology and with demographic changes in American society.

The fall season has not been kind to Nielsen. But it’s not some new trend in network offerings or an unforeseen breakout hit vexing the company that was once the standard in gauging television viewership.

The Media Rating Council (MRC) kicked off Nielsen’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad fall season by suspending Nielsen’s accreditation. Effectively, the industry group that determines the standards for Nielsen concluded its ratings could no longer be considered authoritative.

In reality, MRC was confirming what advertisers and media organizations have known for some time now: Nielsen has failed to keep pace, both with changes in technology and with demographic changes in American society.

Some of Nielsen’s deficiencies had become glaringly apparent. During last year’s pandemic and its resulting lockdowns, Nielsen incredulously and incorrectly reported a decline in television viewership. Beyond being counterintuitive, the illogic of Nielsen’s ratings during the period exposed its glaring deficiencies. 

This substandard performance was not new to the advertisers and media organizations that have relied on Nielsen’s data to make marketing and programming decisions. Resting on its laurels from a bygone era of three commercial television networks, Nielsen has proven woefully inadequate at keeping pace with technology. 

Instead of using the myriad of digital innovations of the past decade to institute an accurate and contemporary system for measuring what Americans are watching, Nielsen instead added on to its existing flawed system. Their hope is that by merging current digital technology with their antiquated surveys and metering, they would somehow create something reliable. Few businesses, either in manufacturing or service, would long survive following that model. Attempts to match the outmoded to the innovative have a storied history of inevitable failure. When was the last time a Fuller Brush salesman was seen knocking on doors? 

Playing catch-up seems to be baked into Nielsen’s corporate DNA. In 2013, Nielsen proudly announced it would monitor and rate internet streamed programming. As evidenced by the loss of accreditation from MRC, that venture has proven to be less than successful. But in actuality, Nielsen was already well behind the curve when it made that announcement over eight years ago. Audience viewership had been adapting to changing technology long before Nielsen concluded it had to, or more accurately was forced to, monitor the many new ways viewers are accessing news and entertainment. 

Nielsen’s response to their loss of accreditation was to “rebrand” their image, showcasing the company’s blind spots even further. This month, they announced that they’ve got a new logo and are even promising “a new look and feel.” Effectively, they claim to be changing everything but their name.

Nielsen appears to believe that it can return to its previous monopoly status by updating its antiquated methods with available technology. But, the “brand evolution” Nielsen is claiming looks a lot more like putting a fresh coat of paint on a rusted car. It may look better from a distance but doesn’t hold up under closer scrutiny. Having consistently and repeatedly taken too long to adapt to changing technology and to the viewing habits of a changing America, Nielsen has lost the trust of advertisers and media organizations alike.

Real redemption won’t be achieved by logo changes or “brand evolution” (whatever that is). Nielsen has to produce data that accurately tracks viewership. That is the organization’s core function. As evidenced by the MRC’s suspension, it has failed – and spectacularly so – at fulfilling that mission.

Gerard Scimeca is chairman and cofounder of CASE (Consumer Action for a Strong Economy), a free-market oriented consumer advocacy group.

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