Nielsen Undercounted Viewers During Pandemic, Audit Finds

Total usage of television among key demo was understated by 2-6% in February, according to the Media Rating Council


Nielsen was undercounting viewers during the pandemic, according to an audit by the Media Rating Council (MRC). The findings come a few weeks after TV networks signaled their fear to the ratings measurement firm that their ratings were being artificially deflated.

The MRC said on Monday that it believes total usage of television (TUT) by adults 18-49 — the demographic that sets the majority of ad prices — was understated by 2-6% during the month of February, which was the timeframe the MRC used to conduct the audit. Additionally, the MRC believes that “persons using television” (PUT) among that same age group was down by 1-5%.

Because of the pandemic, Nielsen has not sent 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 last year, arguing that Nielsen’s processes have been more faulty because of the lack of in-home check-ins and that Nielsen counted homes that residents may have left during the pandemic.

Last month, the Video Advertising Bureau, a trade group that represents TV networks to advertisers and agencies, sent a letter to Nielsen regarding the undercounts and asked it to submit to an audit. At the time of VAB’s president and CEO Sean Cunningham’s letter, Nielsen said it was already undergoing an audit by the Media Rating Council, something that it undergoes each year.

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.

“While today’s MRC findings contradict months of Nielsen’s repeated public denials of any problems with their COVID data processes and results, those months of stalling by Nielsen have slowed the process of deep discovery into the full extent of their COVID data defects that is owed to the entire TV marketplace,” Cunningham said on Monday. “We believe this initial confirmation of undercounted COVID TV metrics is merely the beginning of what will come evermore to light as the MRC’s processes progress into a full audit of Nielsen’s COVID-period TV data, which needs to be an audit of unprecedented scale and scope.”

The timing of this 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 the 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.

“The impacts to estimates will vary among different demographic groups and dayparts, and percentage differences, when applied to program estimates, can be misleading because of the small size of the absolute ratings of many programs, which can distort change percentages,” the MRC said. 

Here is Nielsen’s statement on the MRC’s findings:

“As requested by the MRC, Nielsen has implemented a thorough analysis of the estimated impact of changes in consumer viewing behaviors and its panel maintenance protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we will continue to work with the MRC on other analyses in the future. Throughout the pandemic, Nielsen has been fully transparent in collaborating with the MRC and focused on procedural changes to support its panelists, people and the integrity of currency metrics used by the industry. 

On Monday, the company shared its findings with the MRC. As a result of some of the COVID measures we implemented, we found that there was some understatement of audience estimates.  The variance differed by daypart, demographic and program. At a high level, the February 2021 simulation analysis showed:

  • 2-6% change on Total Usage of Television (TUT) ratings and a 1-4% change on Persons Using Television (PUT) ratings.
  • 93% of C3 P18-49 rating changes for major networks saw no more than a 0.02 change in rating points. 

Since early March 2021, Nielsen has aggressively returned to pre-COVID maintenance procedures and will continue to rigorously work with the MRC and its clients to understand the impacts of both the pandemic and changing consumer viewing behaviors on data and analysis.”


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