Summit Reveals Rift, Raises Issues, Slows Commercial Ratings Momentum

The push for commercial minute ratings appeared to take step backward Thursday during an ad-hoc summit organized by clients of Nielsen Media Research to vet the definitions and methods for the potential new TV advertising metric. The push, which has been gaining momentum ever since June when the major broadcast networks unveiled a plan to begin releasing average commercial minute ratings this fall, has faced opposition from cable networks and questions from Madison Avenue about the validity and composition of the data, as well as the timing of its release.

The meeting, which was organized by NBC's Alan Wurtzel and Mediaedge:cia's Rino Scanzoni, centered around a debate between two TV industry research chiefs: CBS' David Poltrack and Turner Broadcasting's Jack Wakshlag. According to attendees, Poltrack pushed hard for the immediate release of the new ratings, while Wakshlag countered that the data should not be released until they are proven to be accurate and representative.

Agency executives were said to be somewhat circumspect during the meeting, but have separately been lobbying Nielsen to include direct response advertising under its definition of commercial minutes, and to exclude VCR recording from the new audience estimates.

Ultimately, attendees said no significant issues were resolved, but that it now appears that the data that will be released by Nielsen beginning Nov. 18 would be labeled as "test data" ordered as a custom analysis by the broadcast networks.

It was also unclear whether that data would include commercial minutes for cable networks, and if so, how extensive it would be. While the broadcast networks insisted that the data would have less value without the inclusion of cable network data, cable executives have argued that Nielsen's methods are not yet stable enough to report cable estimates, and that it would take at least three months for Nielsen to fix the problems.

The cable industry gained some leverage in its pitch for restraint in recent weeks, following Nielsen's release of some faulty exhibit data, which inaccurately reported low commercial to program rating indexes for Turner's CNN. The gaff was uncovered by Turner's Wakshlag, and Nielsen subsequently apologized for the mistake and issued revised data.

Several agency executives, including ZenithOptimedia's Bruce Goerlich, were said to question Poltrack's push to release the data in time for its original Nov. 18 deadline, indicating that they were loath to spend the time analyzing data that might ultimately prove to be faulty.

While no explicit resolutions were made, Nielsen executives agreed to answer many of the questions raised during the meeting at public industry forum being organized by the Advertising Research Foundation on Oct. 25. Among the problems identified by attendees were problems measuring commercial minute ratings for syndicated TV shows, as well as cable.

ZenithOptmedia's Goerlich also raised another key issue, noting that the average commercial minute approach being made available by Nielsen is at best a "stopgap" measure, and that what the industry needed was data on "exact" commercial minute ratings. Sara Erichson, general manager for national services at Nielsen, said Nielsen would not be able to produce such data until late 2008.

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