With content available across an array of devices, TV programmers have experienced ratings declines among traditional viewers. In turn, networks and content providers have sought a measurement system that accounts for viewers gravitating to streaming platforms and mobile devices in order to better monetize their content investments.
Nielsen Holdings has been working toward providing a more inclusive summation of where viewers/users are watching programming as part of its Total Audience Measurement system. But its drive toward releasing a Total Content Ratings solution to clients in the first quarter has taken a hit. Executives at major programming groups have expressed concerns about participation and implementation across the industry and ultimately its value in truly reflecting the scope and accuracy of viewing.
Linda Yaccarino, chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships at NBCUniversal Media LLC, in a letter obtained by S&P Global Market Intelligence, told the measurement company that its Total Content Ratings product currently "lacks the consistency and transparency the marketplace demands and expects from Nielsen" and is not ready to be released.
Yaccarino wrote that Total Content Ratings has limited participation and implementation as leading pay TV distributors and digital video distributors have not yet been incorporated. She also said that it only has partial representation of OTT viewership and employs disparate data and collection methods mixing panel, census and customized measurement that have yet to be vetted.
NBC is not alone in its concerns.
Joe Marchese, president of advertising products for 21st Century Fox Inc.'s Fox Networks Group, in an interview, said the company has "expressed its concerns about things we are obviously worried about."
He noted that the "accuracy of data is important, but so is the compatibility of consumer viewing experiences."
"If digital viewing is going to be looped into this, it has to be understandable how it compares to linear TV," he said, noting Total Content Ratings does not factor in the screen size or the duration of views.
But Nielsen, in a statement, said it stands behind Total Audience Measurement, and that Total Content Ratings is on schedule to syndicate data on March 1 at which time Nielsen clients will be able to use the data for external purposes. Currently, the data being released to publishers and, subsequently, to agencies is only for internal evaluation.
The company noted it has been working with publishers through various implementations of the components of Total Content Ratings and Digital Content Ratings since January 2016.
"Currently, dozens of TV and digital media brands are enabled for TV, VOD or Digital measurement inside of Nielsen's Total Audience measurement framework," it said. "Nielsen does not stipulate which measurements clients should enable, nor the order in which they should enable them. Total Audience Measurement is designed to provide media owners with utmost flexibility to enable the components based on their business priorities."
That wide swath of content, the different devices that are in play and the content providers' varied interests in emphasizing one platform over another for different shows, coalesce to make Total Content Ratings an enormous undertaking.
“The process of getting all of those different media companies on the same page, it’s like herding cats,” said Tom Eagan, an analyst at Telsey Advisory Group. “There are many different audiences on different devices to consider.”
Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser wrote in a research note that he had heard "mixed messages (to put it mildly) from both advertisers and agencies about the current state of the product — both the process by which the data is gathered and whether the data is reflective of the actual consumption of content."
To make the system work requires media companies to install software code across the myriad distribution points and test them.
"It's work-intensive and expensive to pay Nielsen. It’s frustrating to see things are not further along,” said an executive at a programming company who also believes the release of the syndicated data should be delayed. "But Nielsen has pressure from Wall Street, which is asking, 'What are you guys doing?'"
An executive at a programmer who is advocating for TCR's schedule release date acknowledges that is not an easy process, but said some media companies have fallen behind.
"It takes a lot of investment to code all of the properties and test them. Sometimes it didn’t work and you had to try them again," she said. "But if you’re going to wait until something is perfect, you’re going to wait forever."
Yaccarino, however, does not share that opinion.
"We are eager to collaborate with Nielsen and other industry participates to improve TCR and determine a reasonable, appropriate launch timeline," she wrote. "Some say, 'Something is better than nothing.' We disagree. Bad, inaccurate and misleading data is far worse than no data at all."
Asked if Nielsen can bridge some of its clients' concerns before TCR's March 1 release date, Marchese said "conversations are going to continue" and that people associated with the initiative will be working diligently to do just that.
"People are going to be busy over the holidays and into the New Year," he said.
The March 1 timing is also worrisome to network executives, because the introduction falls just months ahead of the upfront selling season. Nielsen CEO Mitch Barns on the company's third-quarter earnings call with analysts said he believed that Total Audience Measurement would play an important role in the upcoming upfront season.
Marchese somewhat disagreed.
"TCR could be part of the narrative," he said, "but it won't be the currency of the upfront."