Cable Opts Out, Some Call It A Cop Out

On the eve of yet another industry summit to discuss Nielsen's plans for reporting TV commercial ratings, the cable industry announced it is opting out - for now. The decision, based on a recommendation by the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau, puts cable networks in an awkward position, making them look like hold-outs in an era of increasing accountability. Moreover, while cable networks have legitimate methodological reasons for withholding their commercial ratings data, their decision to opt-out creates other dilemmas.

For one thing, based on Nielsen's policy, any networks or syndicators who do not agree to publish their commercial ratings data will not have access to the new reports when Nielsen begins releasing them for evaluation purposes beginning in late December. However, since many cable networks are part of broader media companies that may also have another division participating in the process, it is likely that they will get to see the results.

Even if not, the commercial ratings information is expected to be widely disseminated by some Nielsen clients and covered by the trade and consumer press. In fact, one top broadcast network researcher, CBS' Dave Poltrack, has said CBS will conduct its own research on the commercial ratings of cable networks opting out of the new Nielsen reports, and will release them alongside Nielsen's official ratings data.



The CAB announcement, and similar public statements by NBC Universal research chief Alan Wurtzel, come on the eve of today's Advertising Research Foundation meeting (see related story in today's MediaDailyNews, which is intended to resolve some of the vexing issues that continue to hamper Nielsen's plans for reporting the new ratings - the average audience of all commercial minutes appearing in a TV show.

Nielsen has already unveiled several new steps to improve the methodological issues plaguing cable networks, including monitoring commercials on all cable networks, and developing the means to identify national and local cable advertising minutes. But those steps are expected to take at least several months, and instead of supporting what they deem to be faulty data - even if only for evaluation purposes - the cable industry says it is holding the line until the numbers are completely buttoned up.

"Bad numbers are worse than no numbers at all," said NBC Universal's Wurtzel, whose cable networks will not participate, even as the NBC broadcast network will. Wurtzel, along with Mediaedge:cia's Rino Scanzoni, have been among the leaders from the broadcast and agency communities driving the commercial ratings momentum.

Although Madison Avenue has long desired commercial ratings, and although they are readily available in most other major markets around the world, the current push is the first real shot at developing them in the U.S. marketplace, though some critics claims that they ultimately are a surrogate for the real thing: ratings for specific commercial messages.

That Holy Grail may ultimately be some time in coming, because it would require Nielsen to report ratings data on a second-by-second basis, not the minute-by-minute basis it currently does. However, some organizations - Starcom MediaVest Group and The Weather Channel - have already begun processing commercial minute ratings based on Nielsen's minute-by-minute data, and claim it is far more representative than the average commercial minute ratings Nielsen will be releasing.

"We are a non-vocal minority," quips Weather Channel research chief Ned Greenberg, who says the channel is supporting the CAB's opt-out policy, even as it continues to process its own commercial minute ratings.

Weather Channel is doing that because it believes that its commercial ratings reveal a hidden strength for the channel, which tends to have highly attentive viewers during its commercial breaks. The same cannot be said for some other cable networks, especially some of the biggest, which tend to be the worst abusers of commercial clutter and may fear that their ratings will suffer as a result.

"We know right now what a commercial rating is versus a program rating. Anyone who has [Nielsen's N-Power system] can do it," says NBC U's Wurtzel. "The difference is about 6% for broadcast and 8 to 12 % for cable." While there is a pronounced disparity between commercial ratings for broadcast and cable networks, cable executives claim that a significant part of that disparity - as much as two-thirds - is due to Nielsen's methods. However, the other part is due to genuine viewer behavior, which is likely influenced by the way amount of clutter cable networks carry during their commercial breaks.

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