As crucial field agents servicing Nielsen’s TV panel stopped entering homes during the now year-long COVID-19 pandemic, the TV advertising trade group VAB says there has been sharp "undercounting of overall TV use."“This really should have been avoided,” says Sean Cunningham, president-CEO of the VAB, in a Thursday press conference.
VAB members were pushing Nielsen to have agents return to servicing the TV panel three months after the pandemic began. Cunningham: "TV networks were urging Nielsen to get back into homes to protect the sample in the summer ."
Talks between TV networks, VAB and Nielsen have been ongoing since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, around March 18, 2020 -- about the time
Nielsen suspended in-home field visits.
Nielsen field agents regularly service some 40,000 national TV households that participate in Nielsen People Meter sample. This involves equipment repair and monitoring people-meter usage, as well as suggesting/replacing TV homes in the sample.
But when Nielsen field agents were unable to enter homes during the pandemic, the number of households or persons supplying “usable” information -- the so-called “intab”-- dropped from 36,957 average daily respondents in February 2020 to 29,456 in February 2021.
A Nielsen representative says the VAB's numbers are incorrect, that February 2020 respondents were more the 45,000, which then sank to a little over 35,000 in February 2021.
VAB's Cunningham also says there was a unexplained 120% increase in homes "watching no TV of any type" -- rising to 4,642 homes in February 2021 (5.6% of the sample) from 2,735 homes in February 2020 (2.5% of the sample). This data comes from Nielsen NPower.
"Basically empty homes were sitting in the sample.” he says. “The degraded panel led to progressively worse undercounting of TV usage.”
Cunningham says there has been an eye-opening drop in total weekly-reach TV use -- to an 87% average in the first three months of 2021, from 92% for all of 2019. “It’s an unprecedented drop,” he says.
All this comes at a crucial time as TV networks ready their upfront advertising market selling strategy -- in terms of inventory prices and viewer and ratings data estimates -- which begins in two months.
In particular, this has affected Black, Hispanic and Asian TV panel homes, as well as overall large homes in terms of residents, and homes with three or more TV sets.
There was a 23% decline in Hispanic TV panel homes, a 28% decline in Black TV panel homes, and a 14% fall in Asian TV panel homes.
In addition, there has been more data going against current media research trends, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic of the last year.
“Nielsen has streaming declining [emphasis added] among 18-34 in 2020 versus 2019,” says Cunningham. “How could this possibly be true?”
In response, a statement from Nielsen says:
"In early March , we began our return to pre-COVID maintenance protocols and, in concert with local government guidance, resumed in-home field visits when it was safe to do so with the goal of returning to normal as quickly as possible.
While we have always been in the field, our return to in-home visits helps maintain our representative measurement panel and allows us to execute our Nielsen One vision for true, comparable cross-platform metrics.
"We have confidence in the fidelity of our ratings estimates and are focused on the continued quality of our panel."
Nielsen added that on Friday, it would be releasing research looking at both the "integrity of our panel data" and how viewership has shifted during the pandemic.
Nielsen says this research shows "the audience estimates are in line with trends observed via other data sources. We see no evidence to suggest that changes made during Covid to the panel have materially changed the audience estimates as reported."