Nielsen Boss Shrugs Off ComScore-Rentrak Merger: ‘Good for Them’

CEO Mitch Barns notes the challenges facing his company’s suddenly larger competitor

Last Updated: October 21, 2015 @ 8:04 AM

Nielsen’s CEO isn’t quite sweating the recent comScore-Rentrak merger — at least not publicly.

“Look, we love our competitive position,” Mitch Barns said on a Wednesday morning investor call. “The market needs total audience measurement — that’s the loud and clear call from the marketplace. So, that’s exactly what we’ve been focused on.”

Last month, ComScore bought Rentrak, bringing two big Nielsen competitors together and sending a message to the shared marketplace that a ratings alternative is coming.

ComScore measures consumer web activity while Rentrak measures set-top box data. The two combined companies will create a more robust competitor for Nielsen, which is trying to expand beyond its traditional television ratings to a broader suite of products measuring viewership across multiple platforms.

Meanwhile, the industry has been frustrated with Nielsen’s somewhat antiquated approach to TV ratings for quite some time.

Shrugging off the new super-player, Barns said he believes his company currently offers something pretty different and definitely better.

“If you’re a player in the market who only covers, say, part of the market — maybe only digital or you only have set-top box data — you see things evolving in a way that doesn’t favor you,” he told media analysts. “You’ve got two options: One is to focus on the analytics needs of clients in the market, or you have to combine or come together with somebody else so that you have at least a chance of covering something closer to the total market.”

He noted the role of advertising giant WPP in the merger but refused to name the companies. “The two that have come together recently, look, they had a matchmaker in the form of WPP, they started dating, they decided to get married — so, good for them,” Barns said. “But they still have a lot of work ahead of them.”

Then he took a bit of a shot at the still-forming combined company, questioning how it will handle a potential conflict of interest from its own main investor.

“They still have an issue too — a very important one — which is the issue of independence,” Barns said. “I’ve read where they’ve said that WPP (PLC) doesn’t have a board seat, as if that solves the problem — but of course it doesn’t. WPP is still their largest shareholder.”

WPP is the world’s largest advertising company by revenue.

“They also have to stitch together two different product portfolios that weren’t designed to be put together,” he said, noting how difficult that can be with existing offerings.

Barns wrapped his lengthy answer up by bringing the point back to his own firm.

“It’s a very high bar,” he said, referring to Nielsen’s leadership practices and years of near-market monopoly.

Afterward, Barns admitted that Nielsen is “interested” and “actively pursuing” deals to purchase set-top box data from MVPDs, though he didn’t confirm or deny reports that they’re coming to bed with big fish Comcast.

He did shoot down any rumors of a $100 million price tag on that potential deal, however. Barns said his company may have something to announce on that end by the turn of the calendar year.

Earlier on Wednesday, Nielsen reported third quarter 2015 earnings. It hit profit forecasts right on the nose and just missed Wall Street’s expectations for revenue.