Processors Find Nielsen Hot Potatoes, Say Commercial Ratings Not Ready For Primetime

After four-months of testing, Nielsen has taken the "evaluation" label off its new TV commercial ratings, which become the official currency of the TV advertising marketplace effective this week. But evidence is mounting that the new ratings are not quite ready for prime-time, even though national advertisers have already invested billions of dollars in upfront TV buys based on the data. The new ratings have yet to receive an official stamp of approval from media industry ratings watchdog the Media Rating Council, and new evidence has come to light that the data being released by Nielsen has had some serious flaws, inaccuracies and omissions that could cause major problems when advertisers and agencies begin posting their media buys.

The latest revelation came in the form of a letter circulated last week by Star Media Enterprises, a major re-processor of TV ratings for Nielsen clients, which asserts that there have been systemic problems with the new commercial ratings ever since Nielsen began releasing them in May.

Nielsen has repeatedly claimed that while there have been periodic problems discovered in with its new average commercial minute ratings, it has fixed those and the estimates are now ready to be used as market currency. But according to a copy of the Star Media letter obtained by MediaDailyNews major new problems were discovered as recently as last week.

"The latest error found this week is duplicate reprocessing records," states the letter, dated Aug. 21. "For the last three weeks certain program telecasts have been reported with duplicate telecast information."

Star Media said the glitches affected ratings for a variety of cable TV networks, including Lifetime, Fox News Channel, ESPN Classic, Noggin/The N, and Versus, and said Nielsen had been notified and said it was investigating the matter.

Since May, Star Media claims to have found continuous problems with the new Nielsen data affecting a variety of areas, including:


* Demonstration data being reported incorrectly.
* Programs omitted from Nielsen's average commercial minute "MIT" tapes.
* Obvious inconsistencies in the data for certain programs spanning several weeks.
* Certain record types being omitted.
* Records duplicated.
* Missing proprietary program data.
* File name issues.
* Duration values not matching the file specifications.

Following the release of Star Media's letter, Nielsen issued a communiqué to clients claiming the matters have been taken care of and there are no further problems with the commercial ratings data.

"While this letter was a surprise to us, the details of it were not," Nielsen wrote. "Over the past few months, during the evaluation period of the Average Commercial Minute MIT, we have been working very closely with Star Media and other processors to correct and improve this new deliverable.

"We would like to point out that most of the issues outlined in the letter have been addressed and fixed. Many of these issues occurred back in May when we began releasing the file. The few remaining issues are being addressed by our MIT specialists and will continue to be a high priority to correct."

Asked to comment on the latest revelations, a Nielsen spokesman told MDN the problems were "small potatoes," and described them as a "handful of minor formatting errors" that have mostly been resolved.

"We regret the inconvenience this has caused for any third-party processor but it's important to note that these formatting issues are small potatoes given the overall scope of the undertaking and have nothing to do with the accuracy of the data," he said, adding, "We expect to have the few remaining formatting errors fixed in time for the beginning of the TV season."

One knowledgeable Nielsen client asserted the problems are not simply formatting errors, and that the commercial minutes ratings are far from ready to be used as market currency. "Nielsen never suffers from statistical and computer processing errors like its clients do because its products are not rated," the executive said. "Of course, it's all small potatoes to them, as there is no financial price. It also seems to be smoke and mirrors when it comes to pre-testing. If it were rated, Nielsen ought to be given an IFR: insufficient for reporting."

Other executives said the problems are not relegated simply to the new commercial minutes data, but are part of a broader, systemic issue with Nielsen's overall processing of data, and the fact that it has taken on too many things at once.

"They are beginning to fray at the fringes," said another third-party processor, who recently uncovered similar data and formatting flaws in Nielsen's recently released 2006 Cume Study. The revelations uncovered by the processor required Nielsen to reissue the entire report, which is an important piece of data used by agencies to set their media plans for buying television.

The Nielsen spokesman described the reissuing of the cume report "even more small potatoes," noting that there was a "small human error" in Nielsen's production department that contributed to it. "This data was sent to three third-party processors and we were able to easily fix this when it was called to our attention," he said.

The fact that third-party processors are discovering the glitches, and not Nielsen itself is a bit ironic if also disconcerting. It's ironic, because a few years ago Nielsen began charging third-party processors substantial fees for the right to access and reprocess data on behalf of Nielsen clients that had already licensed and paid for the data.

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