But in Wichita, Kansas, Nielsen may have lost a client, but unwittingly gained a defense. A year ago, the frustrated head of the CBS station, Joan Barrett, made the bold move of dropping the dominant measurement company. "It was a little scary," she said.
But she's happy with the gamble. Her CBS affiliate in the Wichita-Hutchinson market, part of Sunflower Broadcasting, continues to dominate the market.
Smart, passionate and tough, Barrett rolled the dice by replacing Nielsen with Rentrak's fledgling local service. Rentrak now has 57 stations on board. But when Barrett signed on, Sunflower was its first client.
Barrett is the president of Sunflower, is the country's 68th-largest, which also includes the CW station and operations of Univision.
Why make the switch to Rentrak? Barrett did not seek to leave, Nielsen is the currency and easier to use. But she had increasing questions whether ratings derived from 650 homes -- where people filled out diaries -- were reliable in a market that was so sprawling it covers three-fourths of Kansas.
At the end of 2009, Sunflower's contract was up with Nielsen. As negotiations on a renewal began, she couldn't justify the prices Nielsen was seeking. And talks did not get very far.
"It really just came down to I have a fiduciary responsibility to my company to make sure we're paying a fair price for the product we're receiving," she said. Sunflower is part of Schurz Communications. She did not realize Rentrak was an option during negotiations. That came later. But she was prepared to walk away and go with Marshall Marketing, which provides information on audience purchase intent and other psychographic data.
Deal were signed with both and Sunflower has melded data from both to try and create the type of single-source metric advertisers covet. Barrett did know life post-Nielsen would carry multiple risks. For one, the Rentrak data could have shown her CBS station as a worse performer vis-à-vis the competition; it has not.
But prominent agencies in the Wichita market continue to use Nielsen, as do clients that buy from Sunflower's national rep firm. Nielsen is the established currency, and Barrett said "it is certainly easier for us to operate with them."
If Sunflower presents ratings from Rentrak for its programming and agencies prefer Nielsen data that differs, negotiations can take on an added dynamic. And advertisers might go elsewhere. Rentrak data also lacks some of the demographic information buyers are used to.
But Sunflower was also able to capitalize on certain areas. Rentrak data is derived from set-top-boxes from 36,000 homes, compared to Nielsen's 650. To be sure, Rentrak homes use AT&T U-verse and Dish Network service, so the data does not come from homes with over-the-air TV or cable, but it tries to model for that.
"I will take that larger sample size anytime," Barrett said. Plus, she said her sales force has not complained. "I have not had one account executive walk into my office and say you're killing me," she said.
One reason may be the immediacy of the Rentrak data. With Wichita a "diary" market, Nielsen ratings come out just four times a year. Rentrak's numbers have been flowing in on about a three-day delay. Now, the CBS station can show numbers from last week's Kansas City Chiefs game and use that as leverage for next week.
As for Nielsen, its lawyers may want to decamp to Wichita.
In Miami federal court, Nielsen continues its battle with the owner of the Fox station in South Florida, Sunbeam Television. Sunbeam charges Nielsen with anti-trust violations, claiming it inks contracts "intended and having the effect of perpetuating its monopoly."
In Wichita, however, Rentrak has not only has entered the market, but won over a blue-chip client.