In a move that industry execs say is tantamount to a gag order, Nielsen this week sent a tersely worded warning to clients that they would be violating the “permissible use” terms of their contracts if they disclose any of the so-called “impact” data it has begun releasing this month as part of its aggressive ratings sample expansion plan.
“If you choose to access the impact data the terms of your agreement with Nielsen will apply to that impact data and additionally you agree to abide by the following limitations,” Nielsen wrote, asserting that the data “is for your company’s internal use only.”
The notice also warned clients that the data cannot be used for “buying, planning, posting, sales or other commercial purposes,” a demand that shifts Nielsen from a provider of audience estimates to a rule-maker of marketplace currencies.
The notice also asserted that Nielsen “retains sole ownership of the impact data” and that its clients are forbidden to “lend, share, distribute, sell, give, lease, exchange or transfer possession of all or any part” of it.
The notice also included updates on Nielsen’s schedule for distributing the data beginning this month and continuing through the start of the new TV season in September -- but provided no new details about when and how a final decision would be made to shift from the current “tabulation” method that has been the basis of its ratings since it began measuring television in the 1950s to the new hybrid modeling method many believe already is a fait accompli beginning this fall.
While Nielsen has maintained that it has been discussing the methodological shift for years with certain influential clients, others believe the company is making a bum’s rush to push the change forward without the kind of public forum used to vet fundamental methodological changes in the past, such as its shift to so-called “weighting” schemas a decade ago, or the shift from paper diaries to people meters in the late 1980s.
Noting that the shift to modeling may be an even bigger methodological change to national TV ratings than the introduction of people meters, some TV ratings research veterans point out that those previous shifts were done with transparent public scrutiny, overseen by independent consultants with input from industry organizations and watchdogs.
“This should be treated like a government hearing with full transparency,” said one knowledgeable TV industry research vet, adding that the wording of the Nielsen notice was unprecedented in the way it dictates how its clients “can use these data.”
In a statement, a Nielsen spokesperson asserted that the “permissible use” language is a “standard course of business” whenever Nielsen provides new data to clients, but MDN could find no such language in any previous Nielsen client notification provided to us over the past decade. While it is customary language included in Nielsen’s contracts with customers, sources said they’ve never seen it communicated that way in a mass client notification, and described it as an explicit “threat” intended to prevent open dialogue and discussion about the impact of the the impact data.
“Our approach to providing national impact data in advance of the national panel expansion in the fall has been and will continue to be one of transparency,” the Nielsen spokesperson added. “Thousands of clients and hundreds of client companies will receive very granular impact data covering 11 months. Those companies include networks, studios, agencies, advertisers, trade associations and more.
“The data are being provided in multiple Nielsen systems and third-party systems so clients can access the data in different ways. And, we are producing summary reports and data files to supplement the release of the data. All of this is in addition to the detailed methodological documents that we have sent to clients over the course of the past two months. Those documents have reviewed the methods in significant detail with accompanying validation data. And, we continue to meet with clients and client committees on an ongoing basis to review and discuss all of our planned enhancements.”
Given the magnitude of the potential impact of the methodological changes that Nielsen plans to make, some clients feel that is not an objective enough platform to discuss and evaluate the shift, especially insofar as it impacts the national TV advertising marketplace’s currency.
Research principles aside, one source said the shift represents some very practical issues of advertisers, agencies and media sellers who are about to begin negotiating upfront advertising deals for the 2015-16 season that the new methods will impact.
“How do we do reach and frequencies now with the people who were invented to be reached,” one disgruntled Nielsen client said, noting that a significant portion of the “viewers” Nielsen’s ratings represent next fall will be based entirely on mathematical modeling, not tabulated sample data.“They were invented before the fact, so how do you count them after the fact,” he noted.