Viacom Should Release Results Of Nielsen Investigation

by , Dec 16, 2011, 3:05 PM
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On Nov. 9, Nielsen CFO Brian West stood before a group of analysts and echoed the frustration company analysts must feel about being punching bags.

“Sometimes (networks) don’t like their rating,” West said, “because when the ratings are down it’s Nielsen, when the ratings are up, it’s brilliant programming."

A day later came a jarringly public manifestation of that as Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman lobbed blame at Nielsen for reporting an “inexplicable” drop in Nickelodeon ratings. Dauman then detailed how Viacom had engaged in conversations with Nielsen about its would-be failures and the need to “rectify the situation."

Dauman said the independent Media Rating Council (MRC) had been called in – an MRC executive later said by Nielsen – to conduct an audit of the “aberration."

Only after airing his grievance, did Dauman suggest that Nick bore some responsibility, saying there are plans to launch “a great deal of fresh” content. (SpongeBob apparently has absorbed the shot, iCarly star Miranda Cosgrove may still be smarting.)

Why Dauman opted to go public with the Nielsen dispute remains intriguing. Could it have been anger with an unwillingness on Nielsen's part to bend (Nielsen later said it stood by its Nick ratings)? Or, perhaps Dauman wanted to prepare investors for lower ad revenues that would come during the important holiday season.

Dauman is an attorney. Despite that, all appearances are he’s a reasonable executive. (Nemesis YouTube may disagree.)

So, surely he would agree that Viacom bears a responsibility to release the results of the MRC investigation.

Surely, he would concede that after making the allegations against Nielsen, fairness calls for Viacom to set the record straight: did the MRC find Nielsen was on target with the declining Nickelodeon ratings -- or was Viacom proven right and some glitch had Nielsen at fault?

However, it is not just a matter of fairness, but Viacom’s industry responsibility. If indeed Nielsen is at fault, networks -- particularly other kids’ ones -- deserve to know, so they can take another look at their ratings.

Viacom has said an evaluation of set-top-box (STB) data has shown Nielsen is off-base. If the investigation gives some credence to the validity of STB data, then the industry could benefit and place more emphasis on the information. 

If the MRC finds Viacom blew it with its charges, surely Dauman would agree he should simply issue a mea culpa. That would give Nielsen a deserving vindication and the likes of the Disney Channel and Cartoon Network confidence that their Nielsen dues are well spent.

Regrettably, there is no indication Viacom will release any details or findings. A company representative said the MRC investigation is ongoing and there are no plans to make any announcements about it.

Viacom is the accuser, but beyond that why does it bear the transparency burden as opposed to Nielsen or the MRC, which both say they won't release any information. They could hold news conferences, too, right?

That would be welcome. But, in this case, both are off the hook because they are effectively the client. They work for Viacom. It’s fair not to ask them to risk upsetting their employer.

Determining the right path here lies with Viacom’s GPS. Dauman will speak to investors Feb. 2 and he will be asked about the Nickelodeon matter.

Let's hope even before he fields the questions, he will be transparent. He’ll fulfill his obligations to offer ample details on how the matter was resolved. And even if the MRC report is wishy-washy giving both Viacom and Nielsen reason for a defense, he won’t engage in spin.

After that, Dauman can pivot to how Nickelodeon has such sterling programming coming that kids will be glued to the TV and not their parents’ iPhones and ratings will rise.

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