Nielsen Rejects TV Networks’ Demand for COVID-Era Ratings Audit

“Our work with the MRC, the independent body created for this very reason, is ongoing and should serve the purpose of an independent audit,” Nielsen says

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Nielsen will not submit to an audit of its COVID-era ratings measurements, rejecting a request from TV networks who believe their ratings have been undercounted during the pandemic.

“Third party auditing has always been a vital part of serving as the industry currency and our products undergo a comprehensive audit process with the Media Rating Council (MRC) on an annual basis. Nielsen’s existing MRC audit process exists to ensure confidence and trust in the audience estimates we produce,” Nielsen said Friday. “We have been clear and transparent with the MRC and our clients on every change in protocol we needed to make during COVID to keep our people and panelists safe.”

Nielsen’s statement continued, “The decisions we made adhered to Federal, State and Local government guidelines as well as at the recommendation of medical experts. We also conducted our own assessment of the drivers of the reported audience estimates in the white paper we shared with you last week. Our work with the MRC, the independent body created for this very reason, is ongoing and should serve the purpose of an independent audit. Since VAB members are also MRC members, they should feel free to engage directly with the MRC. A single third party audit is the best approach for the industry and we will work closely with the MRC on all audit requests.”

In response to Nielsen’s statement on Friday, Sean Cunningham, president and CEO of the Video Advertising Bureau, said: “Nielsen’s refusal to take any type of action, in the face of a research-backed request from its key industry stakeholders, is profoundly disappointing and a massive disservice to a TV marketplace that has had a stellar track record for collaboration and transparency. This response — or lack thereof — denying a third-party evaluation of its COVID data is a glaring negative outlier from the market’s currency provider and partner.”

On Thursday, TV networks (via the VAB, a trade organization that represents the TV networks to advertisers and agencies) demanded Nielsen agree to an audit by Ernst & Young, the firm used by the MRC.

Because of the pandemic, Nielsen has not sent its field agents to its participating homes, a routine procedure that helps to ensure the ratings that the company puts out every day are accurate. The TV networks are worried their ratings have been undercounted over the past year, arguing that Nielsen’s processes have been more flawed because of the lack of in-home check-ins and because Nielsen counted homes that residents may have left during the pandemic.

Cunningham added that the networks believe Nielsen’s counts included more “zero-viewing TV homes” than normal, and that Nielsen was grappling with “a 20% loss of the panel” during the pandemic.

The timing of the letter is no coincidence — amid a long-term erosion of viewers, the 2020-21 TV season has seen an even bigger decrease in viewership. It’s also the time of year when advertisers and their agencies set the bulk of their ad-buying commitments for the next year in what is known as the Upfronts.


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