Clearly, declines in Nickelodeon ratings are having a significant impact on Viacom’s ad dollars. In the most recent quarter, the company reported U.S. ad dollars were up just 1%. That’s compared to an 11% increase for the same period last year, which came before falling Nickelodeon ratings were a noted trouble spot.
What’s at the root? No one knows. It’s American television, after all. Not even the best minds at the MIT Media Lab can do more than theorize as to why viewers do what they do. It’s pretty cool that TV critics – both official and armchair – have about as much insight as the ivory tower.
On-demand viewing is largely cited as a force behind’s Nick’s bumpy ride, peeling viewers away from the linear feed. Nick programming is available on Netflix and while analysts may disagree, Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman said that’s having a “minimal impact.”
Parents may be loading up DVRs and more kids could be watching shows outside the window where ratings count. Kids are also increasingly becoming Apple – iPhone and iPad -- wizards.
Some data also shows a decline in kids’ viewing overall, which would affect Nick considerably since it accounts for so much of the consumption. By one measure, Nielsen data for February shows a 13% decline on weekdays for a 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. period (though just a 4% drop on weekend mornings).
The main issue, though, would seem to be what it always is at a struggling network: what’s on the screen. It’s the programming, genius. If Nielsen data shows 98% of video is still consumed on a traditional TV set, better content could get Nick healthy quickly.
The matter of Apple products -- and other mobile options -- leading to rotten ratings might be partly solved if the industry settles on a widely accepted standard for cross-platform measurement. (“Significant monetization” would follow, Viacom COO Thomas Dooley said on Thursday’s earnings call.) But, consensus in that space isn’t coming anytime soon.
Again on Thursday, Dauman suggested that Nick’s ratings may not be as bad as Nielsen figures show. “Clearly, there’s some ratings measurement issues,” he said.
Viacom has indicated set-top-box (STB) data has shown a more favorable performance. Viacom hasn’t provided specifics, such as whether it is using data from TiVo or Kantar, or how it is accounting for timeshifted viewing or other approaches.
Peter Sedlarcik, a senior vice president in research at MPG, said more transparency would be valuable in helping buyers get a better read on any snafus. “We can orient ourselves toward that data in order to make the right assessment,” he said.
There will always be differences between ratings from Nielsen, which uses a panel-based system, and those culled from STBs because of methodology. But, without knowing specifics, Viacom’s suggestions that STB data shows markedly better Nick results than Nielsen lacks some pop.
In February, by one measure, Nielsen’s live household ratings for Nick were down 29% on weekdays (7 a.m. to 8 p.m.) compared to the year before. STB-based data from Rentrak had a relatively similar 24% decline.
There is a bigger gap for weekend mornings (8 a.m. to noon), where Nielsen has a 22% drop and Rentrak a 15% decline.
But in making its case, Viacom might point to data not involving Nickelodeon. In February, by one measure, Nielsen has the Disney Channel’s daytime ratings (7 a.m. to 8 p.m.) down 10%. Rentrak? Up 4%.
There are other variations. Some relatively small -- in one time period, Nielsen has Cartoon Network with a 3% increase. Rentrak has it with an 8% bump.
Others are larger. Nielsen has The Hub in one time period up 75%, Rentrak has it up 22%.
The Nielsen-Rentrak spread data comes from the Collaborative Alliance Set-Top-Box Data Think Tank, an industry group that includes members such as kids’ network Sprout, Time Warner Cable and Carat.
While the Nickelodeon plunge prompted the Collaborative Alliance to conduct its research, the group isn’t looking to take sides. The issue does, however, give it grist to lobby the industry to evaluate the potential value and sturdiness of STB data, likely as a Nielsen complement.
"Shouldn't we have more than one source to inform us directionally ... it might help us better understand to give us insight about audience flow and engagement," said Mitch Oscar, an MPG executive and the Collaborative Alliance leader.
STB data providers argue their information is less susceptible to swings because it is derived from tens of thousands of homes. Nielsen believes, in part, STB data does not reliably account for when a box is left on, but no one is viewing. Also, for the portion of the market that does not pay for TV service.
As for Viacom, where the Nickelodeon matter dominated this week's discussion with investors, the company seems to be coalescing around upgrading programming. The Wall Street Journal and others have speculated "SpongeBob" has become overused and tired.
Fortunately, just or two hits should be a panacea (see MTV/”Jersey Shore”). Dauman told analysts advertisers have reacted positively to the network’s upfront presentation.
“We think Nickelodeon is putting in place actions that will help us stabilize the audience delivery," added COO Dooley. "And, that will drive both Nickelodeon’s ratings delivery and advertising back up to the place that it had been and its dominance in the marketplace.”