Nielsen Offers Commercial Ratings As Public Service, Some See Hidden Agenda

Nielsen's aggressive push to deploy so-called commercial ratings by the end of this year is raising eyebrows among some clients who are wondering what the real agenda is. After months of discussion Nielsen Wednesday unveiled a formal plan to begin releasing "average commercial minute" ratings beginning Dec. 11. Nielsen emphasized that the new ratings are being made available for "evaluation" purposes only, and that it would only include data for TV clients who choose to "opt-in" to the process.

That last part has created a quandary for some Nielsen clients, especially major cable TV networks, which have raised important questions about the way Nielsen plans to process the new ratings, which some executives say create an uneven playing field for cable. The dilemma for cable networks is whether to participate in the test, and provide a tacit endorsement for the new ratings, or to sit the process out, in which case they will be excluded from influencing it and will not have direct access to the data.



As part of the plan, Nielsen said that clients who choose to "opt out" will not have access to the data.

The major broadcast networks and some agency executives have been pushing the plan, because they see it as the first real shot at getting some commercial ratings data flowing in the U.S. marketplace. Commercial ratings are common in most other major TV markets around the world. But the way the plan developed and the way Nielsen plans to process the new ratings has raised concerns among cable networks, particularly the differences in the way Nielsen monitors commercial data broadcast and cable networks. Nielsen has said it plans to address those issues, and has begun revising its systems to do that.

Some agency executives have also expressed concerns with the way Nielsen plans to "weight" the commercial minutes data, giving minutes with even fractions of commercials in them the same weight as minutes that are all or mostly commercial time.

Another big question is whether the new commercial minute ratings will include DVR playback or will be based on "live" only data, which is currently the standard for network advertising deals. In its announcement this week, Nielsen said that, "at the request of clients," it is currently analyzing the amount of DVR playback occurring within the first seven days of a program's original airing. "This data will be made available to all national clients by Oct. 26," Nielsen said.

Nielsen's offer to make the first year of data available for free, meanwhile, indicates how important the rollout is to the TV ratings giant.

"I think if we did not succeed in getting the commercial ratings concept through this time, it would have been delayed for years," said a Nielsen insider, adding that client reaction to the plan, "so far, seems positive."

More reactions undoubtedly will be vetted during two industry forums on the topic: An Advertising Research Foundation meeting on Oct. 25; and a Radio-TV Research Council luncheon on Nov. 6.

Meanwhile, some observers say Nielsen's freebie is less than altruistic. For one thing, the U.S. market is the only major market where commercial ratings data is not available, raising questions about Nielsen's vitality on its home turf, even as its pushes forward with plans to measure new video platforms.

For another thing, Nielsen stands to reap a humongous new revenue stream if and when commercial ratings are deployed as actual currency data.

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