Commercial Ratings Move To Madison Avenue's Court, Nielsen Open To VCR Issue

In a series of meetings ranging from private backroom discussions to an invitation-only summit taking place at NBC's headquarters in New York today, clients of Nielsen Media Research are lobbying the TV audience researcher in an effort to influence how it defines and measures what many believe could become the new currency of the $60 billion TV advertising marketplace as soon as next year's upfront buying season: commercial minute ratings. The process leading up to the new ratings, which Nielsen will begin issuing on a "test basis" beginning Nov. 18, could well be likened to a three-way game of tug-and-war being pulled in the direction of three different groups of Nielsen clients: the major broadcast networks, cable networks and Madison Avenue. In the weeks leading up to today's meeting, the ad industry appears to have gained some leverage in that game, as well as the ear of Nielsen's management team, on two important issues concerning commercial minute ratings: whether to include direct response advertising minutes, or VCR recorded audiences.



Following a special meeting with the media research committee of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, Nielsen executives say they are leaning toward the inclusion of direct response advertising, and are open-minded but have not yet determined what to do about VCR audiences.

"There seems to be strong agreement in the agency community for Nielsen to do away with VCR record, and there probably is equally strong feelings on the broadcast side to leave the data in," says Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus. "What are we going to do about it? We're going to continue thinking on it. We haven't made a decision on it yet."

Loftus noted that decision is complicated because it would reset a fundamental aspect of how Nielsen has defined television audiences ever since it began measuring viewing via VCRs during the 1970s. He also noted that Nielsen already "flags" all its VCR audience data, enabling agencies, advertisers, or any other clients for that matter, to reprocess ratings without them.

But that may not be sufficient, says Judy Vogel, director of communication insights at OMD and chair of the AAAA's media research committee, who described the VCR data as the "biggest issue" on the table for Madison Avenue.

"Out point of view is that if we are moving to a new standard of commercial minute audiences, it would not be right to include activity where we don't what the viewing environment is. And until Nielsen can measure VCR playback, VCR data should not be included."

Vogel described Nielsen as being "more committed than in the past" on the VCR issue, but that no solutions appear to be imminent for measuring VCR playback.

The cable industry, meanwhile, has its own agenda and is expected to begin drawing its own line in the sand surrounding the commercial minute ratings debate as soon as today's meeting of Nielsen clients at NBC's offices. Only a handful of cable executives were invited to the summit, due to audience size limitations, something that has caused cable executives to chafe.

According to executives familiar with the cable industry agenda, the cable lobby will focus on three issues before it blesses the new commercial minute ratings: 1) That the process for producing the new ratings must be audited and accredited by the industry's Media Rating Council; 2) That Nielsen should not release the new commercial ratings data in a "two-step" approach, first releasing a wave of data for broadcast networks, followed by a second wave of data for cable networks; 3) That the new commercial minute ratings must pass a "practicality and usability test."

That last point, explained one executive, means that the data needs to be proven to be stable and projectable for planning and buying national TV advertising over time.

Nielsen has already agreed to submit to an audit and apply for accreditation through the MRC for its Nielsen Monitor-Plus service, the key component of the new commercial minute ratings that currently is unaccredited.

One of the questions that has emerged concerning that process is whether the MRC might require Nielsen to provide enough transparency in its commercial minutes estimates to allow other sources of commercial minutes data, such as rival TNS Media Intelligence, to be used as an alternative source for processing the new ratings data.

While it is unlikely that an industry consensus will emerge from today's meeting at NBC, which will be attended by Nielsen executives, as well as a representative from the MRC, it is another step in what is expected to be an ongoing process of dialogue, debate, lobbying and testing.

"We'll at least know what whether we want to see is even viable," says Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development at NBC Universal, and co-host of the meeting, which was organized by him and Mediaedge:cia's Rino Scanzoni.

"It sounds like a simple idea: A commercial rating," Wurtzel notes, adding, "But once you look under the hood, there's a real question about whether Nielsen's current system can do something under which billions of dollars can be traded. The threshold for currency is a whole other issue."

And the time the industry has for vetting those issues may be less than many think. If Nielsen does not begin releasing the data until Nov. 18, it will only be months before buyers and sellers begin discussing how they will structure upfront advertising buys for the 2007-08 season, and how or whether commercial minute ratings will play into that.

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