Give Me Control Of Your Currency, And I Care Not Who Makes The Laws

The potential public misattribution of the quote paraphrased in the headline has little impact on the veracity of its observation.  Control the money, control those who use it.   

It’s the first thought that came to mind, when I learned that Nielsen Holdings is acquiring Arbitron. This was ominously announced on the same day that Nielsen trumpeted its partnership with Twitter, to launch a social-media based measurement tool.

Welcome to the Nielsen World Order.

Big Media’s once half-hearted outcries against Nielsen are today even more rarely voiced than they were five years ago.  The silence deafens like a Minneapolis snowfall, while Nielsen continues to consolidate media measurement.

As somebody who once considered entering the radio ratings industry, I’m chagrined but not surprised by Nielsen’s relentless and seemingly unchallenged pursuit for media currency domination.



I’ve witnessed it firsthand. Between 1999 and 2005, one of my companies, erinMedia, developed a “better mousetrap” for the TV ratings industry.  Inexperienced (as are all firms) at “competing” against a monopoly, we rushed headlong into the marketplace, believing that, in the end, the best product would win.

We dumped millions into “competing” with our nemesis, until one day, I read the words of Arbitron CEO Steve Morris, ironically enough, speaking to investors and analysts in March 2005:

“In the ratings business, one of the quickest ways to commit suicide in the United States is to go head to head with the incumbent.  The challenger is used as a stalking horse, to be honest, by the buyers, who encourage them along, and even spend quite a lot of money encouraging them along and finally Nielsen in the end says, “Oh, that’s what you wanted… Oh, we can do that!”

The industry says, “Great, that’s what we wanted all along.  Nielsen: you change; you guys who have invested $50 million dollars in trying to build a service: Catch you next year. . .”

That’s when it dawned on us — the rules of an open market do not apply when only one regime shows up to “compete.”  In fact, business-school case studies and “free market” exhortations provide road maps to ruin when applied within a monopolized faux market, while Monopoly 101 is as rare a curriculum as a truthful primer on Central Banking.  

We briefly explored adding “converged ratings” (via Navigauge), as a means to differentiate ourselves, but Nielsen publicly had declared its intent to do the same — and more.  Coupled with its inroads into Web metrics via NetRatings, we ultimately elected to move the game into a new battlefield, one that would enforce rules different than the ones Nielsen had proposed, and ultimately dictated, to the industry and market they supposedly “served.”  

Three years later, with little industry support to merit pressing forward, the case was settled with a whimper.  A second unrelated antitrust case between Sunbeam Television and Nielsen Media Research failed to progress beyond the summary judgment stage several years later.

Which brings us to today’s news — and why we should have a problem with it.

First, permitting the monopolized measurement of a “free” nation’s consumption of all media, without third-party verification, facilitates the ease with which a single “truth” provider can conceal or color the reported behavior and preferences of a nation and its people. Ratings serve as more than statistics that substantiate the price of advertising; ratings are the currency that funds some content, “news” and entertainment at the expense of others.  

Second, ratings can also be used to divert revenues to networks and content providers whose programs support the agenda of those who control media — and media ratings.

Third, consolidation and monopolization yield absolute power for the consolidators and monopolies, while squeezing the liberties and freedoms of the individual market participants; when this occurs in a currency market, the impact can be catastrophic.

Much like the printing presses of central banks, once monopolized, there is nothing that can stop a one-world currency printer from creating ratings — or currency — out of thin air.  The ability to secretly counterfeit ratings and launder them via exchanges of services and favors that mask the intent of the transaction enters the realm of possibility.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Nielsen has ever, or would ever, engage in a scheme that would, for example, falsely increase the size of an audience and thereby increase the value of a network’s ad inventory.  I’m merely pointing out that the ability may exist. Human beings with access to printing presses have been known to start them up after hours.

Media currency consolidation appears hauntingly similar, in fact, to the efforts by other (or the same?) powers-that-be, that successfully consolidated the monetary currencies of once sovereign European nations into a single, cross-border and homogenous currency.  Some opine that this was a trial run for a unified North American currency.  Goodbye Punt, Lira, and Mark, hello Euro.  

How’s that working for you, Europe?

In the end, we must recognize that cross-media ratings (and related media,  product consumption data and analytics to which Nielsen now has access) meld powerful undisclosed knowledge of human behavior, with the seductive allure of currency.  When the scale of this knowledge crosses all major media, across 100+ nations, the resulting product is one potent elixir. 

So I must ask you, dear reader: Do you want this potent elixir collected and horded by any single company, let alone Nielsen?

And if not, who will stand up to the Nielsen World Order?

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