The Quest for Cross-Screen Measurement
Five years ago, I was at lunch with a connection who was pretty high up in ad sales at a major MVPD.
“The road to Hell,” he said, “is paved with companies who try to take on Nielsen.”
With nearly 50,000 employees worldwide and a history that spans media measurement over almost a century, the monolith that is Nielsen has long been the currency in media planning, buying, and reporting.
That being said, Nielsen’s linear TV measurement has always been based on a panel of households that comprise just hundredths of one percent of the estimated television audience. As of 2016, the number of metered households doubled, to 40,000 homes. To put that in perspective, the number of TV households in the US is nearly 120 million.
A rating is an estimate of the percentage of TV households watching any given program, based on Nielsen’s STB (set-top-box) tracking of who in their panel is tuned into the program. So a rating of 2.07, like last year’s This is Us season finale, means that an estimated 2.07% of US TV viewers aged 18-49 tuned in to watch. Except that .04% of a population is hardly a representative sample size, especially when you’re then drilling it down further into the 18-49 age bracket.
When you additionally consider that a large portion of the population are now characterized as “cord-cutters” or “cord-shavers”—watching most programming on-demand, streaming, or via DVR—who don't get measured in that traditional rating calculation, what does a Nielsen rating even mean?
In the current media landscape, it doesn’t mean as much as it used to. Nielsen ratings, and age/gender demographics, became the standard currency for planning, purchasing, and then measuring linear media. With the rise of streaming platforms, advanced advertising, and TV everywhere, Nielsen’s measurement reach became stale, and other companies started cropping up that allowed for new, more advanced targeting, execution, and measurement. Nielsen’s hold over the media industry has been steadily slipping since the dawn of the digital age. For years, media publishers spanning television- and digital-first have been lamenting the fact that there is no unified way to measure content reach or ad campaigns.
Timing is Everything
As if propelled by the minute hand of the clock striking 12:00 AM on January 1, Nielsen’s reign is coming under siege. CBS broadcasting, one of the oldest and largest institutions in television, is no longer under contract with Nielsen to rate their programming.
ComScore, a digital ratings and measurement company that has been on Nielsen’s heels for years, made a play in 2018 to measure ads across several content viewing platforms for advertisers’ campaign reporting, and will roll out a similar product for inventory holders in Q1 of this year.
While Nielsen is also preparing to launch a cross-screen measurement product, neither side has quite reached the zenith of this measurement mountain just yet. Both products have their gaps, from a coverage and a methodology standpoint, but they’re currently the only climbers anywhere near the summit of this particular mountain.
Race to the Top
Now that CBS’s contract with Nielsen has lapsed, the industry is tittering with speculation. Does this mean CBS will shift to ComScore completely? Will this motivate Nielsen to step up their measurement game?
The short version is, we don’t know. Nielsen isn’t exactly hurting for money by losing this CBS contract, and it’s not like CBS doesn’t have alternate data sources to fuel its ad sales teams.
What remains to be seen is how the advertisers will react. If advertisers aren’t keen on relying on data that is not Nielsen to assess the value of a CBS buy in a Nielsen TV world, CBS will likely cave and re-up their Nielsen contract. However, if advertisers stay with CBS despite its lack of Nielsen-backed information, this could be a watershed moment for the media industry.
Into the Death Zone
ComScore and its products will be under the pressure to perform, should a high-profile deal like this open a pathway for them. Any shortcomings will need to be addressed quickly and effectively in order to prove that cross-platform measurement can be done.
Should ComScore’s cross-screen measurement prove successful, we could start to see a slew of large media organizations dropping Nielsen. The company will be under pressure to rethink some of the tenets of media measurement that it’s always held in order to develop a product that’s better than ComScore’s.
From the outside, it looks like both Nielsen and ComScore are nearing the top of the mountain. This is the last push to the summit, but also the point of most failure. Will we have two new cobblestones, in CBS and ComScore, on our paved road to hell? Or will Nielsen finally be knocked down a peg by companies with their focus on innovation?